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Science Bulletins: How Did Saturn Get Its Rings?

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Astronomers propose a new theory to explain Saturn's unusual rings.
A new study uses thousands of infrared photographs of the Saturn system to reveal that the planet's moons and rings are older than expected. A surface dusting of dark minerals helped conceal their age, but distributed underneath is an abundance of water ice—a telltale leftover from the earliest days of the Solar System, billions of years ago. Science Bulletins is a production of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology (NCSLET), part of the Department of Education at the American Museum of Natural History. RELATED LINKS Cassini Solstice Mission Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations NASA Photojournal: Saturn European Space Agency: Exploring Saturn
Saturn's majestic, iconic rings define the planet, but where did they come from? Kevin Grazier "Saturn's rings, good question. And the answer is different depending on which ring we're discussing." That's Dr. Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist who worked on NASA's Cassini mission or over 15 years, studying Saturn's rings extensively. Mike Brown "Saturn's rings - the strange things about Saturn's rings is that they shouldn't be there, really, in the sense that they don't last for very long. So, if they are just left over from when Saturn was formed, they'd be gone by now. They would slowly work their way into Saturn and burn up and be gone. And yet they're there. So they are either relatively new or somehow continuously regenerated. 'Continuously regenerated' seems strange and 'relatively new' seems also kind of strange. Something broke up - a large moon broke up, or a comet broke up - something had to have happened relatively recently. And by relatively recently, that means hundreds of millions of years ago for someone like me." And that's Mike Brown, professor of planetary geology at Caltech, who studies many of the icy objects in the Solar System. Saturn's rings start just 7,000 km above the surface of the planet, and extend out to an altitude of 80,000 km. But they're gossamer thin, just 10 km across at some points. We've known about Saturn's rings since 1610, when Galileo was the first person to turn a telescope on them. The resolution was primitive, and he thought he saw "handles" attached to Saturn, or perhaps what were big moons on either side. In 1659, using a better telescope, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens figured out that these "handles" were actually rings. And finally in the 1670s, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini was able to resolve the rings in more detail, even observed the biggest gap in the rings. The Cassini mission, named after Giovanni, has been with Saturn for almost a decade, allowing us to view the rings in incredible detail. Determining the origin and evolution of Saturn's rings has been one of its objectives. So far, the argument continues: Kevin Grazier "There's an age-old debate about whether the rings are old or new. And that goes back and forth - it's been going back and forth for ages and it still goes back and forth. Are they old, or have they been there a long period of time? Are they new? I don't know what to think, to be quite honest. I'm not being wishy-washy, I just don't know what to think anymore." Evidence from NASA's Voyager spacecraft indicated that the material in Saturn's rings was young. Perhaps a comet shattered one of Saturn's moons within the last few hundred million years, creating the rings we see today. If that was the case case, what incredible luck that we're here to see the rings in their current form. But When Cassini arrived, it showed evidence that Saturn's rings are being refreshed, which could explain why they appear so young. Perhaps they are ancient after all. Kevin Grazier "If Saturn's rings are old, a moon could have gotten too close to Saturn and been pulled apart by tidal stresses. There could have been a collision of moons. It could have been a pass by a nearby object, since in the early days of planetary formation, there were many objects zooming past Saturn. Saturn probably had a halo of material in it's early days that was loosely bound to the moon." There is one ring that we know for certain is being refreshed... Kevin Grazier "The E-Ring, certainly a new ring, because the E-Ring consists of roughly micron-sized ice particles. And micron-sized ice particles don't last in space. They sputter and sublimate - they go away in very short time periods, and we knew that. And so when we went to Saturn with Cassini, we knew to look for a source of materiel because we knew that the individual components of the E-Ring don't last, so it has to be replenished. So the E-Ring stands alone from the established system, and the E-Ring is absolutely new." In 2005, scientist discovered that Saturn's E-Ring is being constantly replenished by the moon Enceladus. Cryovolcanoes spew water ice into space from a series of fissures at its south pole. So where did Saturn's rings come from? We don't know. Are the new or old? We don't know. It just another great mystery of the Solar System.
Astronomers have found One RIng to rule them all... not in the land of Mordor, but around Saturn, the Lord of the Rings of the Solar System.
Hank fields one of the most commonly asked questions about our solar system: Why does Saturn have rings? Part of the answer has to do with the fact that it's not the only planet that has them. Watch to learn more! ---------- Like SciShow? Want to help support us, and also get things to put on your walls, cover your torso and hold your liquids? Check out our awesome products over at DFTBA Records: Or help support us by subscribing to our page on Subbable: ---------- Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet? Facebook: Twitter: Tumblr: Thanks Tank Tumblr: Sources:
Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is the only moon or planet in our Solar System other than Earth with stable liquid on its surface. The Cassini spacecraft recently imaged a river valley on Titan that looks much like Earth's Nile River valley. Titan's hydrocarbon river follows a relatively straight path before emptying into a large lake in the north. Science Bulletins is a production of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology (NCSLET), part of the Department of Education at the American Museum of Natural History. RELATED LINKS NASA Missions: Cassini-Huygens ESA Science and Technology: Cassini-Huygens NASA/JPL: Cassini Solstice Mission Solar System Exploration: Titan Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS)
After a seven-year trip, the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in July 2004. Since then, Cassini has been capturing never-before-seen imagery of the ringed planet and its moons. By the mission's end in July 2008, the craft will have made 70 orbits of the Saturnian system, using cameras, magnetometers, spectrometers, and radio antennas to analyze the planet's magnetic field, composition, rings, atmosphere, and 33 moons more completely than ever before. On January 14, the orbiter's Huygens probe descended through the murky atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The probe is the first in history to analyze and image Titan's atmosphere and surface characteristics. Stop along Cassini's and Huygens's journey with the interactive at left. You can view historical images of Saturn, spy on the planet's rings, tour the Cassini orbiter, meet Saturn's moons, and learn what scientists expected to see on Titan. To visually recreate Cassini's route to Saturn, the animation uses real space data from the Digital Universe Project, a collaboration of NASA and the American Museum of Natural History. The Digital Universe includes dozens of datasets collected by the Museum and is constantly updated.