Saturn's rings are younger than scientists thought and appeared in the last 10 to 100 million years, according to research published on Thursday based on findings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
The sixth planet of the Sun was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, along with the rest of the planets of our solar system, and spent most of its existence without the characteristic rings by which it is known today.
Astronomers have long believed that the rings could be young, and perhaps formed by collisions between the moons of Saturn or a comet that broke in the vicinity of the planet.
Some of these responses gained further prominence because of Cassini, an unmanned U.S. investigation that was launched in 1997 and ended in 2017 with a planned death on Saturn's surface.
At the end of its mission, Cassini made 22 orbits, circling Saturn and its rings, approaching them than any spacecraft in history.
Studying how Cassini's flight path was diverted by the gravity of the rings, scientists were able to deduce the mass of the rings and the approximate age.
"Just getting so close to Saturn in the final orbits of Cassini was able to bring together measures to make the new discoveries," said lead author Luciano Iess of Rome's Sapienza University.
Understanding the age and mass of the rings is "a fundamental goal of their mission," he added.
A smaller mass indicates younger rings, because as they age, the rings attract more debris and become heavier.
The rings are composed of 99% ice.
The study did not delve into the question of where the rings came from, but supported theories like a comet or moon collision.
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