Saturn's Rings Could Have Formed During The Dinosaur Age, New Analysis Suggests

Olive Hawkins
January 19, 2019

A new study suggests Saturn flew solo for billions of years - nearly its entire existence - before getting its stunning set of rings.

Scientists said on Thursday a calculation of the mass of the rings based on gravitational measurements of the planet collected by Cassini indicated they formed between 100 million and 10 million years ago in roughly the final 2 percent of Saturn's current age.

In December of the following year it tracked the transit of Venus to test the feasibility of observing planets outside our solar system. The findings are based on observations by NASA's Cassini spacecraft while flying between Saturn and its rings in 2017, before its demise. That means dinosaurs with telescopes could've seen a Saturn without rings or with rings just beginning to form.

Thomas Stallard, from the U.K.'s University of Leicester, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek the results were "striking" as it "once again confirms a startling truth, that Saturn's rings have not existed in the solar system since the planet formed, but are relatively young".

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. 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. In another 100 million years, Saturn's most distinctive feature might be gone. 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. They estimate that around 10 tons (9,072 kilograms) of material is falling onto Saturn from the rings per second, as Meghan Bartels for Space.com writes.

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During the Grand Finale, NASA's Cassini spacecraft passed between the inner edge of Saturn's D-ring and the cloud top.

The team calculated that the surface clouds at Saturn's equator rotate 4% faster than the layer 6,000 miles deep.

"The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet", said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The researchers estimate that the total mass of Saturn's rings is approximately 40 percent that of Saturn's moon Mimas.

The rainfall signifies that summer is happening on the planet and its moon (Saturn takes 29.5 Earth years to orbit the Sun), but it was delayed. "The question is, What causes the more rapidly rotating part of the atmosphere to go so deep, and what does that tell us about Saturn's interior?" This orbital configuration allowed the disentanglement of the tiny acceleration of the rings from the large acceleration due to Saturn. Lower mass indicates a younger age, since the rings are made of ice chunks that accumulate more and more planetary debris over time.

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