Saturn’s Ring Is Not As Dense As It Appears, Study Claims

Posted: Feb 3 2016, 8:50pm CST | by , Updated: Feb 4 2016, 9:33pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Saturn’s Ring is not as Dense as it Appears, Study Claims
Saturn's B ring, the most opaque of the main rings, appearing almost black in this image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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Researchers weighed the central parts of Saturn's most massive ring for the first time. It was found that an optical illusion is making this big ring look even bigger.

Saturn’s ring is still a mystery for astronomers as it continues to pull off tricks even today.

According to a recent study, Saturn’s brightest and most opaque ring is not as dense as it appears. It has been deceiving astronomers for decades with a trick, which makes it look like it contains more mass than it actually does.

Usually opaque or less translucent sections contain more stuff than a transparent section but this is not happening here. The optical illusion is making Saturn’s biggest ring look even bigger.

For the latest study, researchers ‘weighed’ the central parts of Saturn’s most massive ring for the first time. They used a unique technique to analyze data from a series of observations collected during NASA’s Cassini mission.

By combining multiple observations, researchers were able to identify spiral density waves in the ring that are not found in individual measurements and determined its mass density in several places. These density waves are ring’s fine-scale features which are created by gravity pull on ring particles from Saturn’s moon.

Researchers found that overall mass of the ring, also called B ring, is unexpectedly low just half to a seventh of the mass it appears to. Although it certainly looked less transparent in some parts than surrounding parts, the weight was more or less the same throughout. Researchers suggest that optical illusions are responsible for their enhanced look.

“At present it’s far from clear how regions with the same amount of material can have such different opacities. It could be something associated with the size or densities of individual particles, or it could be something to do with the structure of the rings.” Cassini co-investigator Phil Nicolson from Cornell University said.

“Appearances can be deceiving. A good analogy is how a foggy meadow is much more opaque than a swimming pool, even though the pool is denser and contains a lot more water.”

The findings of this research have important implications for the age of Saturn’s rings. A less dense ring would evolve faster than a ring that contains more material. In this case, the less massive the B ring is, the younger it might, perhaps a few hundred million years instead of few billion.

"By 'weighing' the core of the B ring for the first time, this study makes a meaningful step in our quest to piece together the age and origin of Saturn's rings," said Linda Spilker from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "The rings are so magnificent and awe-inspiring, it's impossible for us to resist the mystery of how they came to be."

Uranus, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune all the giant planets in our solar system have their own ring systems but certainly Saturn’s ring is the weirdest and complex of them all and its brightness and vastness is challenge for scientists to understand its formation and history.

Despite the fact that low mass has been found in the ring as per the study but still B ring is thought to contain the bulk of material in Saturn’s ring system. It probably weighs in at only two to three times the neighboring A ring mass, not to 10 times more than what was initially thought.

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