Saturn's rings mystery revealed: Thanks to NASA's Cassini spacecraft

Scientists discover how old Saturn's rings are.

Artist's Conception of Cassini Saturn Orbit Insertion
Artist's Conception of Cassini Saturn Orbit Insertion NASA

A new analysis of gravity science data collected from NASA's Cassini spacecraft has revealed that the rings of Saturn may have formed much later than the planet.

A team of scientists from Rome's Sapienza University has conducted the study, published in the journal Science and their findings have indicated that the rings of Saturn were formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago, which means, from earth's perspective the creation took place during the age of dinosaurs.

It should be noted that as per the astronomers, Saturn was formed 4.5 billion years ago, in the early years of the solar system. There have been clues, which showed that the ring system is a young upstart that attached to Saturn after several years. But, to confirm the age of these rings, scientists had to measure the mass of the ring or how much material they have.

The research team had remote-sensing measurements from Cassini and both of NASA's Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. Then in 2017, before the final orbits of Cassini, the up-close data came and due to insufficient fuel, it performed 22 dives between the planet and the rings. The dives actually allowed the spacecraft to act as a probe by falling into Saturn's gravity field, where it could feel the tug of the planet, as well as the rings.

Cassini radio science team member and lead author Luciano Iess, of Sapienza University of Rome, said that "Only by getting so close to Saturn in Cassini's final orbits were we able to gather the measurements to make the new discoveries. And with this work, Cassini fulfils 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."

As per the scientists, the new findings lend credence to theories that the Saturn's rings were formed from a comet, which came too close to the planet and was torn apart by the gravity of Saturn or may be an event that broke up an earlier generation of icy moons.

Related topics : Space Nasa