Saturn hasn’t always had rings

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Saturn is as famous for its spectacular white rings as for its 62 moons.

But the gas giant’s rings, familiar to every schoolchild, probably did not form 4.5 billion years ago with the birth of our solar system.

In fact, they may have been created when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Scientists now believe Saturn’s rings may have formed as recently as 10 million years ago, when an icy comet was sucked into the planet’s orbit and pulled apart by its enormous gravity field.

 

It means our solar system may still have been capable of massive change relatively recently, and Earth could one day end up with its own spectacular rings.

Saturn’s rings have long been a subject of fascination, as they contain particles which range from tiny specks of ice to boulders as big as houses.

But it took the famous spacecraft Cassini to answer the question of how old they may be.

In its 2017 Grand Finale, after 13 years of exploring Saturn, the spacecraft made 22 dives between Saturn’s rings before ending its mission and burning up in its atmosphere.

The spectacular flyby gave scientists the readings they needed to estimate the mass of the rings.

The ring colour gets slightly darker with time as fragments of rock from passing meteors attach to their icy surfaces, allowing experts to estimate how long they have been growing for.

The conclusion, published in the journal¬†Science, is that Saturn’s rings are only between 10 and 100 million years old and thus much younger than the planet itself, which formed with the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

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