Astronomers reveal the surprising age of Saturn’s rings

Astronomers reveal the surprising age of Saturn's rings

The Great Ring system is very small. With this conclusion – perhaps – the debate actually ends.

Scientists have been arguing for years: How old are the rings of the sixth planet in our solar system? One of them claims that they have been around for billions of years, while the other is sure that they did not see the light of day until much later. A new research group has now taken up the subject again and come to a conclusive conclusion: the rings are much smaller than Saturn itself.

Two theories
Until recently, there were two theories. The first stated that the rings formed at the same time as Saturn and therefore must be about 4.5 billion years old. According to the other theory, the rings would be very small. Some researchers have even suggested that the rings are less than 100 million years old – and may have formed as early as 10 million years ago.

For most of the 20th century, scientists believed that the rings were born at the same time as Saturn. However, this idea was later questioned. The controversy went on because if they were so old, they would have been ‘more polluted by meteor impacts’. Studies indicated that the rings would have absorbed dusty material from the meteorites and thus gradually darkened. But if we look at Saturn’s ring system, we’ll notice that it looks very bright. It looks sparkling clean. Observations indicate that the rings are about 98 percent pure water ice, with only a small amount of rocky material present. “It’s almost impossible to end up with something so beautiful,” says researcher Sascha Kempf.

He and his colleagues have now entered Saturn’s rings New study Check it out again. They studied how quickly dust accumulated — a bit like estimating the age of a house by running your finger over the layer of dust on a windowsill. “Think of rings as a rug in your home,” Kempf explains. “If you have new carpet laying around it, it will build up dust over time. The same goes for Saturn’s rings.”

In fact, tiny grains of rocky material are constantly floating through the solar system. And in some cases, a thin layer of dust can settle on planetary bodies, including the ice that makes up Saturn’s rings. The researchers examined data collected between 2004 and 2017 with Cosmic dust analyzer, an instrument aboard NASA’s defunct Cassini spacecraft, for analyzing dust particles flying around Saturn. the Cosmic dust analyzer, which was somewhat bucket-shaped, scooped up particles as it passed by. Over thirteen years, the instrument collected 163 particles of dust. In the end, the team succeeded in determining the age of Saturn’s rings in this way. And based on their calculations, the gas giant’s rings have only been gathering dust for a few hundred million years.

Determine the final age
In other words, the planet’s rings are remarkably small. For example, it’s probably no more than 400 million years old, which is really a blink of an eye from a cosmological perspective. This makes the rings much younger than Saturn itself, which, as said, already has 4.5 billion years on the counter. “We now know approximately how old the rings are,” says Kempf. But that doesn’t solve any of our other questions. For example, we still don’t know how these rings formed in the first place.”

under the influence of the rings of Saturn
Meanwhile, researchers have been fascinated by Saturn’s seemingly transparent rings for more than 400 years. In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei first noticed them through a telescope, although he did not know what they were (in Galileo’s original drawings, the rings look like the handles of a water jug). In the nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell, a scientist from Scotland, concluded that Saturn’s rings could not be massive, but consist of several separate parts. Today we know that Saturn is home to seven rings made up of countless chunks of ice, most of which are no larger than a rock on Earth. Finally, this ice weighs about half the weight of Saturn’s moon Mimas. The rings extend about 280,000 kilometers from the surface.

We may not have much time to find out. Because the rings may already be gone. A previous study indicated that ice is slowly raining down on the planet. And if this continues at the current rate, the rings will live 100 million years at most.

Too good to be true
“So seeing Saturn’s rings at this exact time, and Galileo and the Cassini spacecraft being able to see them, seems almost too good to be true,” says Kempf. So it warrants a definitive explanation of how the rings formed in the first place. Some scientists believe that the powerful ring system was created when the planet’s gravity crushed one of its moons. However, whether this is true remains for further study.

Although researchers now have an answer to a question that has baffled scientists for more than a century, the final word on Saturn’s rings has yet to be said. “If the episodes are so short-lived, why do we see them now?” Kempf wondered out loud. “That’s a lot of luck.”

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