In Brief

Saturn’s rings are ‘relatively recent’

Belt of ice and rock was formed no more than 100 million years ago

Scientists have discovered that the distinctive rings surrounding Saturn may be far younger than had previously been thought. 

Data obtained by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft before its “death” in 2017 suggest the belt, one of the solar system’s most “magnificent sights”, was formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago, says Reuters

To put that into perspective, dinosaurs were roaming the Earth 100 million years ago, the news site says, and their extinction is believed to have taken place some 66 million years ago.

Saturn, meanwhile, was created when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago, the Daily Mail says.  

Using the data, a team of scientists at the University of California were able to determine that the rings are “less than half as heavy” as Mimas, one of Saturn’s 62 moons, Metro reports. 

This suggests that the rings are “relatively recent”, otherwise they would be heavier and less bright because they would have been “contaminated” by more space debris, the news site says. 

Scientists have tried to calculate the age of Saturn’s rings before, but the lack of data available before Cassini meant that only vague estimates could be drawn. 

Speaking to the BBC, Luciano Iess, professor of aerospace engineering at Sapienza University in Rome, said: “Previous estimates of the age of Saturn's rings required a lot of modelling and were far more uncertain.

“But we now have direct measurements that allow us to constrain the age very well.” 

Although Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus have rings, Saturn’s are the most prominent to the naked eye and can easily be seen through a telescope. 

The planet’s rings look “solid” to the naked eye, but the band is actually “translucent” and consists of “countless” ice and rock particles, according to The Atlantic

“Some are no larger than a grain of sugar, others as enormous as mountains,” the US magazine says. They are “held in place by a delicate balance between Saturn’s gravity and their orbiting speed”.

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