Saturn’s rings formed 100 million years ago, study finds

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Saturn’s rings are one of the magnificent sights of our Solar System, but they could be a relatively recent addition, according to data obtained from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft before the robotic explorer’s death in 2017 plunged into the gas giant.

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

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On Earth, 100 million years ago was during the age of dinosaurs.

The findings challenge the notion held by some astronomers that the rings developed shortly after Saturn formed around 4.5 billion years ago, along with other planets, including Earth.

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Others thought the rings were much younger but lacked crucial data, such as their mass, to reliably estimate their age.

“I like the rings and their fascinating dynamics, whether they are young or old,” said Luciano Iess, professor of aerospace engineering at the Sapienza University of Rome, lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter.

All four gas planets have rings, although Saturn’s are the largest and most spectacular, with a diameter of about 282,000 km. The numerous thin rings are 99% ice and 1% silicate particles from interplanetary debris.

Its mass turned out to be 45% less than previous estimates based on 1980s data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft.

The lower mass indicates a younger age, the researchers said, adding that the still-bright rings would have been dimmed by debris for a longer period.

Scientists suspect that the rings perhaps formed when a large comet or icy moon ventured too close to Saturn and was destroyed by gravitational forces or moons collided in orbit. Saturn has 62 known moons.

There may not be a more precise answer about the origin and age of Saturn’s rings “until we can obtain samples of ring material in our labs to examine and possibly date via radioactive decay,” said the Cornell University astronomy professor and co. – Study author, Phil Nicholson.

Data from Cassini’s final orbits, plunging between the planet and the rings as it ran out of fuel, also provided insights into Saturn’s internal structure, including a core estimated to be 15 to 18 times the mass of Earth.

It also indicated that Saturn’s atmospheric layers begin to rotate in sync deeper into the planet compared to Jupiter.

Source: CNN Brasil

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