The age of Saturn’s rings

It’s not a Mecano song, no. It’s new research on this striking planet. Science has determined the age of Saturn’s rings. They are no more than 400 million years old. They are much younger than Saturn itself, which is about 4.5 billion years old.

That is the conclusion of a new study, led by physicist Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado. The work is published in the journal ‘Science Advances’. It focused on analyzing dust. Tiny grains of rocky material flow through the Earth’s solar system almost constantly. In some cases, this flow can leave behind a thin layer of dust on planetary bodies. Including the ice that forms Saturn’s rings.

A study calculated the age of Saturn's rings.
A study calculated the age of Saturn’s rings.

Dust is the key

He set out to date Saturn’s rings by studying how quickly this layer of dust accumulates. It’s like finding out how old a house is by running your finger across its surface.

“Think of the rings like the carpet in your house,” Kempf says. If you have a clean carpet, just wait. The dust will settle on the carpet. It’s the same with rings.”

From 2004 to 2017, the team used an instrument called the Cosmic Dust Analyzer. They used NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to analyze dust motes flying around Saturn. Saturn’s rings accumulate dust only a few hundred million years old. “But we still don’t know how these rings formed.”

Researchers have been captivated by these seemingly translucent rings for more than 400 years. In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei first observed them through a telescope. Saturn is now known to harbor seven rings composed of countless chunks of ice.

The rings are made up of millions of tiny pieces of ice.
The rings are made up of millions of tiny pieces of ice.

“Prompt” disappearance

For most of the 20th century, scientists assumed that the rings formed at the same time as Saturn. This raised some questions, such as that the rings are ‘clean’.

After calculating the age of Saturn’s rings, another conclusion was reached. The rings might already be disappearing. In an earlier study, NASA scientists reported that the ice is slowly falling off the planet. It could disappear completely in another 100 million years.

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