After years of research and mystery, we finally know how Saturn’s great rings formed

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On September 15, 2017, Cassini sent its last message to Earth before plummeting headfirst into the bowels of that huge ball of gas in the middle of space that we call Saturn. The ‘Grand Finale’ was one of the most exciting ‘space moments’ in recent years: the great goodbye of a probe that had been with us for 13 years.

And yet, sometimes it gives the impression that it is still more alive than ever: since then, the data collected by the space probe has brutally helped to understand the mysteries of the planet. The last and most mysterious is the origin of the rings.

A 400 year old mystery. Because this story with that Galileo Galilei observing the rings of Saturn for the first time without being able to identify what it was he was seeing and goes through the entire modern history of astronomy up to the results that Cassini herself gave us when she analyzed the composition of the rings. According to the probe, the apparent age of these structures was only 100 million years old.

As Ricardo Hueso saidplanetary scientist at the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU, the Cassini data drew some answers, but left a much more intriguing question: “if the solar system is 4,500 million years old”, “what is the origin of the rings And why are they so young?

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The importance of the ‘Grand Finale’. Cassini’s final act was not only emotionally ‘pretty’, it was useful. To answer this question, Jackson Wisdom and his team at MIT used Cassini’s latest observations (when it irreversibly approached the planet and its ‘tidal forces’) as a model to understand where all that material that makes up the rings could have appeared.

Your explanation is interesting. and it has a name: Chrysalis, an ancient moon of Saturn. Apparently, about 160 million years ago the satellite became unstable and got too close to the planet. This ended up “making it gravel” and, as a consequence, it ended up forming the characteristic rings. In fact, according to the research, the strange tilt of the planet (“that it is tilted 27º with respect to the axis perpendicular to the ecliptic in which the planets orbit”) is also related to Chrysalis.

It is not only. What pointed out Santiago Pérez Hoyos at the Science Media Centerthe model fits “with the orbital variations of other satellites such as Titan and with the gravitational interactions that the entire Saturn system establishes with the nearby Neptune. The mass estimates also fit with the idea we have of the body that, when breaking off, could form the rings. Also, the idea that a planet that today has more than eighty known moons could have had some satellite or so is not at all far-fetched.”

Come on, this is an impressively powerful idea that solves numerous problems: the “hypothesis is apparently firm and resists a first detailed analysis”. Unfortunately, we will not be able to test it in the near future because there is no mission to Saturn in the space calendar. Which, on the other hand, is also good news. It means that we are increasingly better prepared to model gravitational processes as complex as the wonderful planetary rings.

On September 15, 2017, Cassini sent its last message to Earth before plummeting headfirst into the bowels of that huge…

On September 15, 2017, Cassini sent its last message to Earth before plummeting headfirst into the bowels of that huge…

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