Cassini Spacecraft Identifies Saturn's Rings To Be 4 Billion Years Old

By Rhonda J. Miller on December 15, 2013 11:00 AM EST

Saturn's Rings Determined To Be 4 Billion Years Old
A new mosaic of Saturn and its rings made by the Cassini spacecraft was released Nov. 12, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI (Photo: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI / Rhonda J. Miller)

Saturn's rings were likely formed more than four billion years ago and the telltale information is in the dust. Scientists examined Saturn's ring dust with the Cosmic Dust Analyzer on NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the planet, according to Sasha Kempf of the University of Colorado Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

Kempf and his colleagues presented the findings regarding the dust in Saturn's rings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco from Dec. 9-13, according to LiveScienceSaturn's rings are composed mainly of water ice, but they also contain small amounts of rocky material. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer measured how frequently the tiny rocky particles move through the Saturn ring systems. Based on the measurements, "the main rings would be extremely old, rather than hundreds of million years old," Kempf said.

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By reconstructing the orbits of many of the small particles, scientists determined that most of them likely came from the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune's orbit. Some of the dust particles, however, probably came from the more distant Oort Cloud and some from interstellar space, Kempf told LiveScience.

Clues about Saturn's moon Titan, which has hydrocarbon lakes and seas, have also been provided by the Cassini spacecraft. Titan has been determined to be one of the most Earth-like places in the solar system, with stable liquid on its surface. The Cassini spacecraft has enabled scientists to analyze the depth of the seas and lakes on Titan, said Steve Wall, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a press release for the American Geophysical Union meeting. Scientists have calculated the volume of the hydrocarbons in the second largest sea on Titan.

Slightly more speculative Saturn news revolves around "Peggy," a srange spot in one of Saturn's rings, reported — and named — by Professor Carl Murray of Queen Mary University of London, according to the Daily Mail. Murray noticed the baffling spot while he was examining images from the Cassini spacecraft, he reported at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The mysterious object, located at the right edge of Saturn's A ring, was named Peggy after Murray's mother-in-law, according to a report in Wired.

"What he sees is a disturbance in the rings," said physicist Matthew Hedman, of the University of Idaho, who is a member of Cassini's imaging team but was not involved in Murray's work. The object named Peggy appears to be about one kilometer in diameter — too small to be a moon or a moonlet. While the Cassini cameras can only see down to about 10 kilometers, Peggy was identified by the interference it caused. Some astronomers theorize Peggy could be the beginning of a new moon. The object could have formed by an accumulation of ring material that has collapsed under its own weight. Some of Saturn's moons have been created that way, forming from ring dust and collecting more material to grow, according to the Daily Mail.

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