(CNN) — Skygazers look through their telescopes to see if Saturn’s iconic icy rings may disappear in the near future, according to new research.
A new analysis of data captured by NASA’s Cassini mission, which orbited the gas giant between 2004 and 2017, has revealed new insights into how long the rings have existed and when they might fade from view. The findings were shared in three studies published in May.
Our solar system and its planets formed about 4.6 billion years ago, and scientists have long debated the age and origin of Saturn’s rings. Some astronomers argue that the bright, icy rings must be younger than expected because they have been eroded by meteorite interactions over billions of years and are no longer dark.
The Cassini data led to a new discovery, published May 15 in the journal Academics Icarus, which supports this theory that the rings formed long after Saturn’s initial formation. Other studies were published on May 12 Scientific advances and on May 15 Icarusrespectively, reached similar conclusions.
“Our inescapable conclusion is that Saturn’s rings must be relatively young by astronomical standards, a few hundred million years old,” said Richard Durison, professor of astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington and lead author of both studies. Report.
“Looking at Saturn’s satellite system, there are other signs that something amazing happened there in the last hundreds of millions of years. If Saturn’s rings aren’t as old as the planet, that means something happened to create its incredible structure. It’s really exciting to read.”
According to researchers, seven rings may have formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Rings of Saturn
Saturn’s rings are composed mostly of ice, and only a small percentage is rocky dust formed in space by the broken pieces of asteroids and micrometroids. These sand-like fragments collide with particles from Saturn’s rings, creating floating debris as the ring material orbits the planet.
During Cassini’s final mission, when the spacecraft passed 22 orbits between Saturn and its rings, researchers were able to obtain information about how many meteorites are contaminating the rings, the rings’ masses, and the rate at which material is raining from the rings. Below the planet. All the data seemed to point to the same conclusion about the youth of Saturn’s rings.
The researchers were able to determine the amount of cosmic dust that accumulates in the icy rings. Over 13 years, Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer managed to collect 163 dust grains from beyond the Saturn system that orbited the gas giant. The rings were surprisingly “clean,” suggesting that they must not have been around long enough to accumulate excessive cosmic dust.
Meanwhile, as meteorites penetrate the rings, they push material from the inner rings toward Saturn at high speeds. The Cassini rings are losing tons of mass per second, which means they don’t have much time in astronomical terms. Researchers estimate that these rings last only a few hundred million years.
Previous research suggested that these rings would disappear within 100 million years.
“We’ve demonstrated that massive rings like Saturn’s don’t last very long,” said Paul Estrada, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and co-author of the three studies.
“We can speculate that the relatively faint rings around other gas and ice giants in our Solar System are the remnants of rings that were once as massive as Saturn’s rings. Astronomically, after Saturn’s rings have shrunk, they look like the sparse rings of Uranus.”
The dark rings around Neptune and Uranus may have been large and bright in the past, similar to how Saturn’s rings are now, the researchers said.
But what causes Saturn’s rings? Scientists aren’t sure yet, but gravitational instability destroyed some of the icy moons orbiting the giant planet, creating enough material to form rings of material around Saturn.
“The idea that Saturn’s main rings may be a recent feature of our solar system is controversial, but our new results complete the trifecta of Cassini measurements that make this finding hard to dispute,” he said in a statement. Researcher Jeff Guzzi, principal investigator at NASA Ames and co-author of the Saturn research paper Scientific advances.
Future missions to explore some of Saturn’s moons may reveal more information about the events that formed the rings and lead to other discoveries.
“If we can figure out what happened to form the rings in that system a few hundred million years ago, we can figure out why Saturn’s moon Enceladus is ejecting water, ice and even organic matter from its deep ocean.” Thurisen said. . “We may even end up finding the building blocks of life on Enceladus.”