AUG 30, 2017 05:56 AM PDT

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

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 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2019
The Science Behind Nuclear Fission-Powered Space Engines
The cold and unforgiving environment in outer space presents a lot of challenges, with one of those being power generation. Solar arrays can be capable eno...
OCT 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2019
Spacewalking Astronauts Install New Docking Adapter on International Space Station
It’s been business as usual for astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station for the past several weeks, but there was a bit more exc...
OCT 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2019
Both Halves of the James Webb Space Telescope Joined for First Time
NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which was formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) before getting renamed in t...
OCT 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2019
Martian Helicopter Attached to the Mars 2020 Rover Chassis
It seems like this past week was a particularly productive one for the team over at NASA. Not only were the two halves of the James Webb Space Telescope (J...
OCT 14, 2019
Space & Astronomy
OCT 14, 2019
How Large Solar Storms Can Impact Earth's Power Grid
The Sun is a powerful ball of energy, and with that in mind, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it can sometimes become unstable. Over time, the...
OCT 14, 2019
Chemistry & Physics
OCT 14, 2019
Catastrophic Ancient Events Might Have Forever Changed Life-friendly Venus
There is plenty of evidence suggesting that Venus had a long history of being a habitable planet due to its abundance of water, plate tectonics, and amicab...
Loading Comments...