Saturn Has Not Always Had Rings, Study Says

Posted: Jan 20 2019, 7:18am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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Saturn has not Always had Rings, Study Says
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

New study indicates that Saturn's rings are relatively young and formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago.

Saturn is known for its iconic rings, but a new research suggests that these rings have not always been there. Saturn rings are relatively young and they may have formed as recently as 10 million years ago.

The findings emerged from the final orbits of NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and observed the planet and its rings for the next 13 years. During the final, ultra-close orbits, Cassini explored a region between Saturn and its rings where no spacecraft has gone before. Those close encounters allowed researchers to make the first accurate measurement of the amount of material in the planet's rings. Based on the strength of their gravitational pull, researchers were able to estimate mass of the rings and ultimately their age.

Data reveal that material in the rings weighs about 40 percent of the mass of Saturn's moon Mimas, suggesting that rings are relatively new. Saturn’s rings may have created between 10 million and 100 million years ago, much later than the planet itself. Saturn formed in the early years of solar system around 4.5 billion years ago.

"Only by getting so close to Saturn in Cassini's final orbits were we able to gather the measurements to make the new discoveries," said Cassini radio science team member and lead researcher Luciano Iess from Sapienza University of Rome. "And with this work, Cassini fulfills a fundamental goal of its mission: not only to determine the mass of the rings, but to use the information to refine models and determine the age of the rings."

Researchers have also used the final unprecedented observations to precisely measure the rotation of the planet. According to their calculations, length of a day on Saturn is 10 hours 33 minutes and 38 seconds. The latest rotation rate is several minutes faster than previous estimates based on data from the Voyager spacecraft.

"We now have the length of Saturn's day, when we thought we wouldn't be able to find it," said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker. "They used the rings to peer into Saturn's interior, and out popped this long-sought, fundamental quality of the planet. And it's a really solid result. The rings held the answer.”

Cassini mission ended in September 2017, when the spacecraft ran out of fuel and deliberately crashed into Saturn's atmosphere.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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