Cassini Reveals the Surprisingly Young Age of Saturn's Rings

Titan’s north pole as seen by the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. The orange box shows the “wet sidewalk” region what analyses suggests is evidence of changing seasons and rain on Titan’s north pole. The blue box shows the expan

A new study suggests Saturn flew solo for billions of years - nearly its entire existence - before getting its stunning set of rings.

In December of the following year it tracked the transit of Venus to test the feasibility of observing planets outside our solar system.

When NASA's Cassini spacecraft plunged into the planet's atmosphere to end its 20-year mission in 2017, it dived between the planet and its rings. Their measurements led to insights about the planet's composition and the rings' young age, at least from an astronomy standpoint.

Scientists suspect the rings formed perhaps when a large icy comet or moon ventured too close to Saturn and was shattered by gravitational forces or moons collided in orbit.

Lead researcher Luciano Iess (EE-ess) of Rome's Sapienza University says the findings are "another gift we received from this attractive mission".

Cassini spacecraft captured this natural color view of Saturn's rings on June 21, 2004.

Scientists, using data from the Cassini spacecraft, have found evidence of methane rainfall on the north pole of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. His team calculated the length of time it would take for the contaminants to accumulate - it turned out to be a "short" 10 million to 100 million years.

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NASA recently confirmed that the gas giant is losing its iconic brims due to "ring rain", a phenomenon in which particles and gases fall into the planet's atmosphere.

When Cassini zipped through Saturn's ring plane, mission managers allowed the planet, its rings and moons to gravitationally tug at the speeding spacecraft. "The more we learn about Saturn's rings, the more fragile and transient they seem to be".

Previous estimates based on data from the Voyager flybys of Saturn suggested the rings' mass was about 28 million billion metric tons. 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.

Saturn's rings boast a mass equivalent to 40 percent of the mass of Saturn's moon Mimas, which is 2,000 times smaller than Earth's moon. The new data from Cassini now suggests the rings' mass is only about 15.4 million billion metric tons.

"The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet", said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement.

The scientists assessed Saturn's gravitational field by measuring a microwave signal that Cassini sent to receivers on Earth during its "Grand Finale orbits". "The question is what causes the more rapidly rotating part of the atmosphere to go so deep and what does that tell us about Saturn's interior". The lower the mass, the younger the rings are, and because they are predominantly made of ice, if they were older, the ring material would have become contaminated by interplanetary debris, dulling them.

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