Saturday, 16 February, 2019

Saturn's rings are 'very young'

Saturn's moon Titan as seen from NASA's Cassini spacecraft Modal Trigger Saturn's moon Titan as seen from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. NASA JPL University of Arizona University of Idaho
Frank Williams | 21 January, 2019, 15:27

"To figure out the age of the rings, scientists needed to measure something else: the mass of the rings, or how much material they hold", NASA said. The so-called "Grand Finale" signaled that the end was nigh for the probe and, on September 15, 2017, it burned up in the gas giant's atmosphere, bringing a spectacular 13 years of science in Saturn's orbit to a poignant close.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft had a long and successful mission that spanned a couple of decades. The agency wanted to avoid Earthly contamination on these pristine alien environments. They used data from Cassini's "Grand Finale", where the spacecraft plunged through the planet's rings before burning up in the atmosphere below.

Saturn's iconic rings may be relatively new in the cosmic scheme of things, scientists have determined. "The more we learn about Saturn's rings, the more fragile and transient they seem to be".

"T$3 he rings have less than 100 million years to live". Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

The researchers studied wave patterns created within Saturn's rings by the planet's internal vibrations. The gas giant Saturn, on the other hand, is 4.5 billion years old, like all the other planets in our solar system. The extremely slight tugs resulted in tiny changes in the probe's trajectory, which could be precisely measured. According to a new study, scientists have found that Saturn's rings are actually much younger than the planet itself.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn.

Ms Dhingra continued: "We want our model predictions to match our observations".

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But in order to even get the right measurements, the scientists had to account for deep flowing winds in Saturn's atmosphere. These massive flows are moving about 4 percent slower than the upper atmospheric clouds that are visible, causing a gravitational anomaly that wasn't predicted.

That deeper layer takes 9 minutes longer to rotate than do the cloud tops at the equator, which go around the planet once every 10 hours and 33 minutes.

This is why the rings finding has been key to homing in on the length of day.

The idea that Saturn's rings could be used to study the seismology of the planet was first suggested in 1982, long before the necessary observations were possible. That means dinosaurs with telescopes could've seen a Saturn without rings or with rings just beginning to form.

Previous estimates based on radio signals captured by the Voyager spacecraft in the 80s had the length of a Saturn day at 10 hours, 39 minutes and 23 seconds. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. Lower mass indicates a younger age, since the rings are made of ice chunks that accumulate more and more planetary debris over time.

A recent study published in the journal Icarus suggested that Saturn's rings are a short-lived feature and they will be completely gone in around 300 million years. One of the main results of his analysis is the new calculation of Saturn's rotation rate, which has been surprisingly hard to measure.

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