Cassini data suggests Saturn's rings are much younger than expected

Incoming data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft indicates that Saturn's trademark rings may have formed only 100 million or so years ago.
By Tobi Gerdes | Sep 01, 2017
When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Saturn may have been a ring-less planet. Incoming data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft indicates that Saturn's trademark rings may have formed only 100 million or so years ago.
Cassini has been traversing the solar system for nearly 20 years. After flying past Venus in 1999 and bypassing Jupiter in 2000, it neared Saturn in 2004 and has been providing extensive surveillance of the ringed giant and its moons ever since.
Cassini is scheduled to make two more close flybys of Saturn and then dive to a final demise in Saturn's atmosphere on September 15. NASA engineers said that a self-destruct is necessary because the spacecraft is now almost out of fuel.
Cassini's operators have been using Cassini's final weeks of operation to get close-up views of Saturn's rings and a detailed map of the gravity field that shapes their formation. The gravitational pull on the rings can help researchers determine the rings' mass, NASA said
Mass matters because the greater the rings' mass, the older they are. But the data suggests the rings have less mass than researchers had estimated. Some researchers have hypothesized that the rings formed with the planet itself billions of years ago, but Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said that the rings would have to have much more mass to be able to hold together for billions of years.
"If the rings are less massive, they won't have had the mass to survive the micro-meteoroid bombardment that we estimate to have happened since the formation of the planet," she told BBC News. "So, we're heading in the direction of the rings being perhaps 100 million years old or so, which is quite young compared to the age of the Solar System."

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