How old are Saturn's rings and how long will they last?

May 18, 2023  20:09

In a groundbreaking discovery, new research has unveiled that Saturn's iconic rings are much younger than the gas giant planet itself. A team of dedicated researchers has now determined that the birth date of Saturn's rings is significantly more recent than previously believed. The breakthrough findings were obtained by studying the accumulation of dust around the gas giant planet.

Similar to how dust settles and accumulates on surfaces, tiny grains of rock constantly traverse the solar system, resulting in thin layers of material building up on planets, moons, asteroids, and ring systems like Saturn's. By examining the rate at which this dust layer gathers, researchers were able to estimate a new age for Saturn's ring system, likening the process to running a finger over an untouched surface in one's house.

The astonishing results indicate that the solar system's most remarkable and renowned ring system is no older than 400 million years. This stands in stark contrast to Saturn itself, which formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago when a cloud of gas and dust around the sun collapsed, giving birth to the planets.

However, conducting this investigation was no simple task. The team, led by physicist Sascha Kempf from the University of Boulder, meticulously analyzed data collected between 2004 and 2017 using NASA's now-retired Cassini spacecraft and its Cosmic Dust Analyzer. Over the course of 13 years, before its deliberate descent into Saturn's atmosphere, Cassini managed to capture and gather 163 specks of dust from the vicinity of Saturn.

Kempf explained the analogy by stating, "Think about the rings like the carpet in your house. If you have a clean carpet laid out, you just have to wait. Dust will settle on your carpet. The same is true for the rings." By measuring the dust build-up on Saturn's rings, the researchers estimated that less than a gram per square foot of material accumulated each year.

These revelations unveil that Saturn's rings are a relatively recent phenomenon compared to the age of the planet itself, and they may disappear sooner than expected. The gas giant's gravitational force is gradually pulling the rings back towards the planet, leaving astronomers uncertain about their remaining lifespan.

Saturn's rings have captivated scientists since their discovery in 1610 by Galileo Galilei. The intrigue surrounding them grew in the 1800s when researchers revealed that the rings are not solid but composed of numerous individual particles. Presently, it is known that Saturn boasts seven rings, extending outward up to approximately 175,000 miles from the gas giant's surface. These rings consist of chunks of ice of various sizes, with the majority no larger than a boulder on Earth.

Despite this newfound knowledge about the rings' age, the mystery of their origins remains unresolved, leaving numerous questions unanswered. Kempf acknowledged, "We know approximately how old the rings are, but it doesn't solve any of our other problems. We still don't know how these rings formed in the first place." He further questioned the timing of their appearance, stating, "If the rings are short-lived and dynamical, why are we seeing them now? It's too much luck."

The team's groundbreaking work has been detailed in a paper published in the journal Science Advances, shedding new light on the enigmatic history of Saturn's rings.


  • Archive