Saturn: How Young Are The Rings?

Jan 23, 2019 By James H, Writer Intern
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Of all the planets in our solar system, the one well-known for its majestic rings is none other than Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun.

The rings of this gas giant were first observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Ever since then, space travel has unearthed more about Saturn, and recently, researchers gathered enough information to make astonishing calculations about this planet!

What We Know So Far

Ancient astronomers have kept records of Saturn’s movements as it can be seen with the naked eye.

Galileo was able to identify its rings with his telescope in the 17th century, and other astronomers of the time discovered the many moons orbiting Saturn. Starting in the 20th century, crewless spacecraft have been launched to take a closer look at Saturn. The Pioneer 11 explored Saturn in 1979 and took the first photos of the planet. Voyager 1 visited Saturn in 1980 and was followed by Voyager 2 a year later. In 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered Saturn’s orbit.

Based on their photos and other data gathered over the centuries, Saturn is primarily made of hydrogen and helium. There are more than 62 moons orbiting Saturn; some well-known ones are Titan and Rhea.

The iconic rings are primarily made of water ice which gather in clumps that can be several meters wide! While scientists debate the rings’ origin, they have discovered a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” The gravity of Saturn pulls the ice clumps at high speed, and some particles crash into the atmosphere and instantly vaporize. This phenomenon happens all the time, so there is always a downpour in Saturn!

How Young Are The Rings?

Recently, by studying data from the Voyagers and the Cassini spacecraft, scientists have been able to find out the mass and age of Saturn’s rings!

As it wove in and out of Saturn’s rings around 22 times, the Cassini spacecraft felt the tugs of the gravity of Saturn and its rings, and that data was sent to NASA. These measurements were used to figure out that the mass of the rings is around half the mass of Antarctica shelf. This mass is spread out over an area equal to 80 times the surface area of the Earth.

Based on the relatively small mass, scientists have also concluded that the rings are really young compared to the planet itself. They have calculated that the rings only formed between 10 to a 100 million years ago, which is only around the time that dinosaurs roamed our Earth! Unfortunately, the scientists have also reported that Saturn’s rings will not stay around forever. The rings might disappear partially because of ring rain in less than 100 million years, which is relatively fast considering that the planet has been around for 4 billion years!

Scientists plan to explore the planet further in the future, potentially with another Cassini spacecraft since the first one ended its journey in 2017. But for now, we can enjoy the beauty of Saturn’s rings in the night sky.

Sources: CNN, Wikipedia, NASA