Saturn's Rings Are Much Younger Than You Might Think

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spotted fresh rainfall on Saturn’s moon Titan

Christopher Mankovich, a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at University of California-Santa Cruz, studied the wave patterns within the rings using the data Cassini stored after examining the icy, rocky rings in unprecedented detail during its orbits of Saturn. Their age was determined by studying doppler-shifted radio signals from the doomed Cassini spacecraft.

"We now have the length of Saturn's day, when we thought we wouldn't be able to find it", said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker.

As Cassini orbited Saturn, its path was deflected by the rings' gravity.

The masses of Saturn's fainter D, F, G and E rings are considered negligible, the researchers wrote. Not too long ago, researchers believed that Saturn's band formed when the planet itself coalesced into its current shape, about 4.6 billion years ago. Only when the team accounted for powerful flowing winds deep in Saturn's atmosphere - something impossible to observe from space - did the measurements make sense, allowing them to calculate the mass of the rings.

According to data gathered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the sixth planet from the sun may have existed for billions of years without them.

Some of these answers have come into sharper focus because of Cassini, an unmanned United States-European probe that launched in 1997 and ended in 2017 with a planned death plunge into Saturn's surface.

Scientists can also typically use the tilt of a planet's magnetic field to measure its day length. The surface clouds at Saturn's equator rotate 4% faster than this deep layer.

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The age of the rings has been a debate among scientists for years. This means that if humans were alive during the age of the dinosaurs, our instruments would have seen a lonely Saturn, without its signature bands.

The effect of this jet, the origin of which is now uncertain, is that by speeding up the rotation of the outer 15% of the planet, it increases the centrifugal force, resulting in part of the outer atmosphere uplifting slightly, affecting the planet's gravitational pull. "While, on human timescales, it seems that Saturn will always have its rings, across the lifetime of the solar system, these rings are set to quickly fade into obscurity".

The knowledge that Saturn contains a large core of heavy elements provides crucial insight into how Saturn, and possibly the other gas giant planets, formed. The rings, in turn, detect those movements in the field.

Scientists had been on the hunt for clouds near Titan's north pole since NASA's Cassini probe passed it in 2005 - and now they have the confirmation.

In addition to revealing the age of Saturn's rings, the gravity measurements taken during Cassini's close passes allowed the team to uncover more information about the planet's gaseous interior structure. To really know the answer to this question, Cassini would have had to collect a sample from Saturn's bands and analyze them.

While these rings were originally made of bright ice, they were darkened over time by the debris coming from the outer reaches of the Solar System.

Now, while these results reveal the age of Saturn's rings, they do not explain how or why the rings formed so recently. This enabled the mission team to measure the mass and the gravity of both Saturn and the rings.

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