Saturns Rings Are Younger Than the Planet They Orbit

first_img Hubble Captures Saturn’s ‘Phonograph Record’ Ring SystemTonight: See Saturn at Its Best and Brightest for the Year Stay on target Before plunging to its death in Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took one final probe of the planet’s unique rings.Now, data from the mission’s grand finale is giving scientists insight into the extensive system, and it’s potential age.Precise measurements of Cassini’s ultimate trajectory suggest the rings are a relatively recent addition, having originated between 10 million and 100 million years ago.Estimates of the age of Saturn’s rings vary widely.During the Grand Finale, Cassini passed between the inner edge of Saturn’s D-ring and the cloud top (via NASA/JPL/Caltech)Some believe they formed along with the planet 4.5 billion years ago, from icy debris remaining in orbit after the formation of the Solar System.Others maintain the bands are much younger; that Saturn captured an object from the Kuiper belt or a comet and gradually reduced it to orbiting rubble.As one of Cassini’s last acts, NASA programmed it to perform 22 dives between Saturn and its rings, to probe the planet’s gravity field. Earthbound radio telescopes then measured the spacecraft’s velocity to within a fraction of a millimeter per second.These calculations, led by Philip Nicholson of Cornell University and Luciano Iess from the Sapienza University of Rome, put to rest “a long-running argument among planetary scientists, according to the University of California, Berkeley.Saturn’s interior is composed of three primary layers: a deep, inner rocky core made mostly of heavy elements, enveloped by liquid metallic hydrogen, and surrounded by a thick layer of gaseous molecular hydrogen (H2) (via NASA/JPL/Caltech)The new mass value fits earlier estimates, which suggest that lower mass equals younger age. Initially bright and made of ice, the bands over time become contaminated and darkened by interplanetary debris.In fact, they may disappear as quickly (very, very slowly) as they appeared.NASA recently confirmed that the gas giant is losing its iconic brims due to “ring rain,” a phenomenon in which particles and gases fall into the planet’s atmosphere.“These measurements were only possible because Cassini flew so close to the surface in its final hours,” UC Berkeley professor Burkhard Militzer said in a statement. “It was a classic, spectacular way to end the mission.Findings were published this week in the online edition of the journal Science.More on Data Reveals ‘Ring Rain,’ Other Mysteries of SaturnDust Storms Spotted on Saturn’s Moon TitanCassini Data Shines Light on Saturn’s Famous Hexagonlast_img

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