AUG 30, 2017 5:56 AM PDT

Do We Finally Know How Old Saturn's Rings Are?

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

While we know that Saturn has some of the most robust planetary rings of any other planet in the solar system, one thing scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint for a while is when they formed.

Data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft throughout the plethora of Grand Finale dives between Saturn and its rings are proving useful in that respect, as astronomers get the closest peek they’ve ever had at these mysterious formations.

An artist's impression of the Cassini spacecraft flying in between Saturn and its rings to make observations.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the spacecraft making this maneuver once every six days or so to get within proximity of the rings for study, astronomers can learn about the rings’ composition and try to guess their weight. These variables can help us determine their age.

Based on the passes Cassini has made already, astronomers gathered enough information to confidently estimate that Saturn’s rings are approximately 100 million years old.

Related: Here's everything you need to know about Cassini's Grand Finale

This figure sounds old on paper, but considering that the entire solar system formed over 4.6 billion years ago, the contrary is true. Saturn’s rings are quite young, which has implications for how they formed.

NASA’s Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker explains how smaller icy objects like comets probably got trapped in Saturn’s gravitational pull and were torn to shreds, helping to form the incredible rings we see today.

"For younger rings, it would require a comet, or a centaur (one of a group of small, icy objects), or perhaps even a moon moving too close to Saturn. Saturn's gravity would break apart that object and then the remaining bits would go on to form rings," Spilker said to the BBC.

"Perhaps that's happened more than once. Maybe some of the differences we see in the rings are from different objects that were broken apart. But if the rings are less massive they won't have had the mass to survive the micro-meteoroid bombardment that we estimate to have happened since the formation of the planet.

While Saturn's rings are likely 100 million years old, the team analyzing Cassini's results admits how there’s still room for refinement. It's merely a ‘best guess’ based on the initial data we’ve received from the spacecraft throughout its Grand Finale, and that number could change as these close-up observations continue through mid-September.

Cassini will snap its last photos on September 14th in preparation for the suicidal dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. It's a bummer considering how much Cassini has contributed to science, but NASA decided this fate for the probe to keep it from colliding with potentially habitable moons like Enceladus and Titan and contaminating their surfaces before we can study them.

Amid all the excitement, it should be interesting to learn whether astronomers will make any other determinations before the Cassini mission officially ends.

Source: BBC

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
OCT 29, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Water Found on Moon Enough to Sustain a Lunar Base
OCT 29, 2020
Water Found on Moon Enough to Sustain a Lunar Base
For the first time, scientists have found water on the moon's sunlit surface. Coupled with other evidence of water i ...
NOV 14, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Bacteria Make Space Mining 400% More Effective
NOV 14, 2020
Bacteria Make Space Mining 400% More Effective
Researchers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have shown that bacteria can increase space mining efficiency b ...
NOV 17, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Researchers Find Human Brain Shares Structure with Universe
NOV 17, 2020
Researchers Find Human Brain Shares Structure with Universe
Astrophysicist Franco Vazza from the University of Bologna, and Alberto Felett, a neurosurgeon at the University of Vero ...
JAN 05, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Could Earth's Microbes Help Us Find Extraterrestrial Life?
JAN 05, 2021
Could Earth's Microbes Help Us Find Extraterrestrial Life?
As scientists are learning more about microbes existing in the higher echelons of the Earth's atmosphere, they are b ...
MAR 16, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Revealing the Origins of Jupiter's Spectacular Auroras
MAR 16, 2021
Revealing the Origins of Jupiter's Spectacular Auroras
Many years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was able to catch a glimpse of amazing auroras that occur on Jupiter. Now res ...
MAR 17, 2021
Microbiology
Novel Bacteria Discovered on Space Station
MAR 17, 2021
Novel Bacteria Discovered on Space Station
Scientists have known that wherever humans go, we carry microorganisms with us, and the International Space Station is n ...
Loading Comments...