- Scientists used supercomputer simulations to understand the origin of the rings
- A collision between two icy moons could have led to their formation
Since it was first seen through a telescope, Saturn’s rings have mystified astronomers.
But a team of researchers now believe they have figured out the origins of the mystical loops.
A new series of supercomputer simulations suggests a massive collision between two icy moons a few hundred million years ago could have led to their formation.
And it could help explain why the rings appear much ‘younger’ than the planet itself.
The most recent high-quality measurements of Saturn have come from the Cassini spacecraft, which spent 13 year studying the planet and its systems after entering Saturn’s orbit in 2004.
Since it was first seen through a telescope, Saturn’s rings have mystified astronomers. But a team of researchers now believe they have figured out the origins of the mystical loops
A new series of supercomputer simulations suggests a massive collision between two icy moons a few hundred million years ago could have led to their formation
The craft captured precise data by passing by and even diving into the gap between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself.
Cassini found the rings are almost pure ice and have accumulated very little dust pollution since their formation, suggesting that they were created during the most recent period of the life of the Solar System.
Intrigued by the youth of the rings scientists from NASA, as well as Durham and Glasgow Universities, modelled what different collisions between precursor moons may have looked like.
These simulations were conducted using a resolution more than 100 times higher than previous studies, giving scientists their best insights into the Saturn system’s history.
Dr Vincent Eke, from Durham University, said: ‘We tested a hypothesis for the recent formation of Saturn’s rings and have found that an impact of icy moons is able to send enough material near to Saturn to form the rings that we see now.
Cassini found the rings are almost pure ice and have accumulated very little dust pollution since their formation, suggesting that they were created during the most recent period of the life of the Solar System
‘This scenario naturally leads to ice-rich rings because when the progenitor moons smash into one another, the rock in the cores of the colliding bodies is dispersed less widely than the overlying ice.’
Saturn’s rings today live close to the planet within what is known as the Roche limit – the farthest orbit where a planet’s gravitational force is powerful enough to disintegrate larger bodies of rock or ice that get any closer.
Material orbiting farther out could clump together to form moons.
By simulating almost 200 different versions of the impact, the research team discovered that a wide range of collision scenarios could scatter the right amount of ice into Saturn’s Roche limit, where it could settle into rings as icy as those of Saturn today.
Since other elements of the system have a mixed ice-and-rock composition, alternative explanations haven’t been able to explain why there would be almost no rock in Saturn’s rings.
The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal.
SATURN: THE BASICS
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest planet in our solar system after Jupiter.
It is regarded as the ‘jewel of the solar system’ with its sunning rings.
It is not the only planet to have rings but none are as spectacular or as complicated as Saturn’s.
Like Jupiter, Saturn is a massive ball made mostly of hydrogen and helium, with some heavy elements.
Its core stretches out to cover 60 per cent of the radius of the world.
It is similar to the rest of the planet, but made of a ‘slush’ like material of gasses, metallic fluids, rock and ice.
The farthest planet from Earth discovered by the naked eye, Saturn has been known since ancient times.
The planet is named for the Roman god of agriculture and wealth, who was also the father of Jupiter.
While planet Saturn is an unlikely place for living things to take hold, the same is not true of some of its many moons.
Satellites like Enceladus and Titan, home to internal oceans, could possibly support life.
Facts and figures
Distance from Sun: 1.434 billion km
Orbital period: 29 years
Surface area: 42.7 billion km²
Radius: 58,232 km
Mass: 5.683 × 10^26 kg (95.16 M⊕)
Length of day: 0d 10h 42m
Moons: 82 with formal designations; innumerable additional moonlets
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