A recent study reveals the age of Saturn's rings - and it's not what you would expect.
When astronomers study the formation and evolution of the solar system, no planet presents as interesting a case as the ringed gas giant, Saturn. According to a report from Space.com, a recent study from scientists at the SETI Institute has shed new light on Saturn’s rings and moons, revealing that they may be even younger than the earliest dinosaurs on Earth.
New computer models of the giant ringed planet and its some 62 moons reveals that many components of Saturn’s system may be just 100 million years old, the blink of an eye in the context of massive planetary bodies.
The study also found that Saturn’s moons Tethys, Dione and Rhea lack the orbital tilt typical of moons orbiting massive planets, suggesting that the moons are relatively very young. According to Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute and one of the study’s authors, “Moons are always changing their orbits. That’s inevitable. But that fact allows us to use computer simulations to tease out the history of Saturn’s inner moons. Doing so, we find that they were most likely born during the most recent 2 percent of the planet’s history.”
Saturn’s rings were first discovered in the 17th century, and have since been the topic of fierce debate. A team of French astronomers first suggested that the rings and moons surrounding Saturn could be of recent origin in 2012, when they showed how tidal effects could cause the moons to undergo considerable changes to their orbital paths in a short time frame.
The study sheds new light into the dynamics of the peculiar Saturn system, and even suggests that the closest reaches of the planet’s orbit could be hosting more activity than previously thought.
“So the question arises – what caused the recent birth of the inner moons?” asked Cuk. “Our best guess is that Saturn had a similar collection of moons before, but their orbits were disturbed by a special kind of orbital resonance involving Saturn’s motion around the sun. Eventually, the orbits of neighboring moons crossed, and these objects collided. From this rubble, the present set of moons and rings formed.”
A press release from the SETI Institute describing the details of the study can be found here.