Mystery of Saturn’s rings might have been solved at last

·4-min read
Illustration of Saturn.
Saturn's rings are far, far younger than the planet. (Getty Images)

Saturn’s rings are much, much younger than the planet itself, a new study has shown.

The study - which analysed dust collecting on the icy rings - found that the rings are likely to be no more than 400 million years old.

That makes the rings much younger than Saturn itself, which is about 4.5 billion years old.

"In a way, we've gotten closure on a question that started with James Clerk Maxwell," said Kempf, associate professor in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.

In the 1800s, Maxwell, a scientist from Scotland, concluded that Saturn's rings couldn't be solid but were, instead, made up of many individual pieces.

Today, scientists know that Saturn hosts seven rings composed of countless chunks of ice, most no bigger than a boulder on Earth.

Altogether, this ice weighs about half as much as Saturn's moon Mimas and stretches nearly 175,000 miles from the planet's surface.

Galileo Galilei was the first person to observe Saturn's rings. (Getty)
Galileo Galilei was the first person to observe Saturn's rings. (Getty Images)

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Kempf explained that tiny grains of rocky material wash through Earth's solar system on an almost constant basis. In some cases, this flux can leave behind a thin layer of dust on planetary bodies, including on the ice that makes up Saturn's rings.

In the new study, he and his colleagues set out to put a date on Saturn's rings by studying how rapidly this layer of dust builds up.

"Think about the rings like the carpet in your house," Kempf said. "If you have a clean carpet laid out, you just have to wait. Dust will settle on your carpet. The same is true for the rings."

From 2004 to 2017, the team used an instrument called the Cosmic Dust Analyser aboard NASA's late Cassini spacecraft to analyse specks of dust flying around Saturn.

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A picture of Saturn's rings taken by the Cassini spacecraft. (Reuters)
A picture of Saturn's rings taken by the Cassini spacecraft. (Reuters)

Over those 13 years, the researchers collected just 163 grains that had originated from beyond the planet's close neighbourhood.

Based on their calculations, Saturn's rings have likely been gathering dust for only a few hundred million years.

The planet's rings, in other words, are new phenomena, arising (and potentially even disappearing) in what amounts to a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.

"We know approximately how old the rings are, but it doesn't solve any of our other problems," Kempf said. "We still don't know how these rings formed in the first place."

Researchers have been captivated by these seemingly-translucent rings for more than 400 years.

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei first observed the features through a telescope, although he didn't know what they were.

Kempf added that for most of the 20th Century, scientists assumed that the rings likely formed at the same time as Saturn.

But that idea raised a few issues - namely, Saturn's rings are sparkling clean. Observations suggest that these features are made up of roughly 98% pure water ice by volume, with only a tiny amount of rocky matter.

"It's almost impossible to end up with something so clean," Kempf said.

Engineers and scientists at LASP designed and built a much more sophisticated dust analyzer for NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024.

The team estimated that this interplanetary grime would contribute far less than a gram of dust to each square foot of Saturn's rings every year - a light sprinkle, but enough to add up over time.

The rings might already be vanishing. In a previous study, NASA scientists reported that the ice is slowly raining down onto the planet and could disappear entirely in another 100 million years.

That these features existed at a time when Galileo and the Cassini spacecraft could observe them seems almost too good to be true, Kempf said - and it begs an explanation for how the rings formed in the first place.

Some scientists, for example, have posited that Saturn's rings may have formed when the planet's gravity tore apart one of its moons.

Kempf said: "If the rings are short-lived and dynamical, why are we seeing them now? It's too much luck."

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