Bet you were expecting a rude pun here? Well, not today.
Beautiful … An artistic impression of Saturn (not drawn by dinosaurs. They had no telescopes)
Saturn's characteristic rings may be only 100 million years old, and so formed during a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.
Although NASA's historic mission at Cassini to Saturn has ended, astrophysicists are still discovering new facts about the gas giant from the accumulated data, including the history of the planet's rings. An article in Science this week reveals that Saturn's rings may be 10 million years old and are disappearing relatively quickly.
When the Cassini spacecraft plunged between Saturn and its rings, its movements were influenced by the planet's gravity. The resulting motion of the probe suggested that Saturn's gravitational field was much higher than expected, and that field is affected by the rapidity with which its internal matter rotates, so there was some process on the planet that scientists could not explain. And it turned out to be awesome winds.
"We constructed models of the gravitational fields and none of these models matched the data. Now we know it's the winds that are 9,000 kilometers deep, "said Burkhard Militzer, co-author of the article and associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The register.
Crucially, these gravity measurements also helped to calculate the total mass of Saturn's rings. Around 1.54 x 1019 kilograms, they are less than 20,000 times the mass of Mercury, the smallest planet in the Solar System. The mass of the rings also helped the researchers estimate their age.
The coffins assumed that the particles in the rings were made of pure ice. Over time, the ice's clean surfaces were darkened with fragments of things like meteor bombardment. Dirt from space causes the total mass of the rings to increase.
"We know how much meteorite material falls and we measure the color of the particles to see how much has been added over time," said Militzer. Since the total mass of the deposited meteorite powder is simple to estimate, the researchers can estimate how long the rings should have been around, assuming that the accumulation of debris is quite stable over time.
Organic material, radiation, unexpected methane … Yes, we are talking about the amazing rings of Saturn
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The team discovered that the rings could have begun to form about 100 million years ago, or just 10 million years ago. The gap comes from uncertainty in the mass of the rings, Militzer explained The Reg. The results challenge the common idea that the rings formed at the same time as Saturn, 4.5 billion years ago.
"One hundred million years ago, dinosaurs were still walking on planet Earth," he said. "When they disappeared about 65 million years ago, we know that there was a big impact. Something has changed dramatically in the solar system.
There is no evidence that the extinction of dinosaurs and the formation of Saturn's rings are linked, he warned. "But both events show that massive impacts can shake the Solar System."
The data did not show, however, how the rings were formed in the first place. Made of pieces of dust, rock and ice, the small particles would continue to circulate around the planet if they were not disturbed. But small gravitational disturbances put some of them out of place, causing some matter to escape.
The rings are slowly losing mass, Militzer said. He thinks they'll be here for another 100 million years.
"[That time frame] is good enough for us, but compared to Saturn's life is relatively short. (I.e.