Humans continue to be fascinated by space and, thanks to vast technological advances, we are now able to more adeptly explore our solar system and beyond without having to risk leaving the planet. One thing we have learned this week is that Saturn’s iconic rings may be relatively new, at least in terms of the planet’s overall lifespan. Indeed there was, apparently, a time when the gas giant existed without its halo.
According to new analysis of gravity science data taken from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This analysis seem to indicate that the rings around Saturn formed somewhere between 10 million and 100 million years ago. In terms of Earth years we could ascertain that Saturn’s rings could have started to form around the time our planet was home to the dinosaurs.
Now, Saturn formed in our solar system around 4.5 billion years ago, which was early in terms of our solar system; it was still a baby. For many years, actually, scientists suspected that Saturn’s ring system is much younger than its planet, but until there was no way to determine it.
Fortunately, we have Cassini; or we had Cassini. The data collected by the NASA spacecraft was collected as it made is final, very close orbit of Saturn during the final days of its 2017 mission. From the data collected on this pass, scientists were able to measure not only the age of the rings, but also their mass.
NASA had Cassini perform 22 dives between the planet and its rings to get this up-close data during the spacecraft’s final few orbits. Next they combine this data with other data collected as far back as the 1980s, during the Voyager mission. Using these dives as a probe, NASA collected info on Saturn’s gravity field, where Cassini could experience pull from both the planet and the rings. Cassini sent spacecraft velocity and acceleration information back to earth using antennae from both NASA’s Deep Space Network and the European Space Agency.
Lead study author and Cassini radio science team member, Luciano less comments, “Only by getting so close to Saturn in Cassini’s final orbits were we able to gather the measurements to make the new discoveries. And with this work, Cassini fulfills a fundamental goal of its mission: not only to determine the mass of the rings, but to use the information to refine models and determine the age of the rings.”