Saturn spent billions of years without its rings, NASA says

Christopher Davidson
January 21, 2019

During six of these crossings, a radio link with Earth was monitored to make the first accurate estimate of the amount of material in the planet's rings.

"The findings indicate that Saturn's rings formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago", NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech said in a press statement.

But where the planet itself has failed to give up the secret, its trademark rings gave it away.

Saturn's rings boast a mass equivalent to 40 percent of the mass of Saturn's moon Mimas, which is 2,000 times smaller than Earth's moon.

Some planetary researchers thought that its ring system formed along with the planet from icy debris remaining in orbit after the formation of the Solar System.

The data lends weight to a theory that suggests Saturn's rings are the remnants of a comet that was captured by its gravity and ripped apart.

"To figure out the age of the rings, scientists needed to measure something else: the mass of the rings, or how much material they hold", NASA said.

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But, thanks to Cassini data, they've now solved the mystery. Though mission scientists expected to detect some wispy elemental gases in this "empty" region, Cassini's particle instrumentation found a smorgasbord of elements and molecules "raining" from the rings down to the planet's atmosphere. As the spacecraft was running out of fuel, it performed 22 dives between the planet and the rings.

"Based on the overall brightness, spectral characteristics, and geologic context, we attribute this new feature to specular reflections from a rain-wetted solid surface like those off of a sunlit wet sidewalk", the scientists who made the discovery explain.

"I like the rings and their fascinating dynamics, whether they are young or old", said Sapienza University of Rome aerospace engineering professor Luciano Iess, lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

In September 2017, as Cassini conducted its final flybys and plunged into Saturn's atmosphere, the probe's trajectory was influenced by the gravitational pull of Saturn's rings.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft had a long and successful mission that spanned a couple of decades.

The idea that Saturn's rings could be used to study the seismology of the planet was first suggested in 1982, long before the necessary observations were possible. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Iess et al. However, Saturn is different. Sensors on the spacecraft measured, essentially, how much the gravity of the planet and of the rings tugged it back and forth. "The more we learn about Saturn's rings, the more fragile and transient they seem to be".

The team calculated that the surface clouds at Saturn's equator rotate 4% faster than the layer 6,000 miles deep. Because Saturn is a gas giant with no solid surface, there are no physical landmarks to track as it rotates, and it also has an unusual magnetic field that makes its rotation rate hard to pin down, the Jet Propulsion Lab explains. "But for me, the real surprise was the interior structure".

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