For most of its life, Cassini’s orbit was outside both Saturn and its rings. “You got a combined mass of Saturn plus the rings, and there was really no way to separate it out,” says Linda Spilker, the lead scientist for the Cassini mission, who was not involved in the latest research. “Here was our first chance.”
In its last maneuvers, Cassini wove in and out of Saturn’s rings. The spacecraft was jostled by the gravity of the bands, as well as powerful winds emanating from deep within the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists used the data produced by these effects to calculate the mass of the rings. They say that the mass is about 40 percent that of Mimas, a moon of Saturn, which is about 2,000 times as small as Earth’s moon.
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In more earthly terms, the rings are about half the mass of the entire Antarctic ice shelf, spread across a surface area 80 times that of Earth.
“It is the most accurate measurement of the rings of Saturn,” says Bonnie Buratti, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on the Cassini mission but who was not involved in the study. “The error margins are kind of pretty big—there’s about a 25 percent, almost 30 percent uncertainty—but it’s way more accurate than anything we’ve had before.”
The new estimate helps to answer another Saturnian question that has puzzled scientists: How old are the rings? For decades, the scientific community was split into two camps. One believed that the ring system formed when Saturn did, 4.6 billion years ago, when the solar system as we know it emerged from swirling clouds of dust left over from the fiery birth of the sun. The other suggested the rings were a youthful feature, formed only 100 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the Earth.
The latest research bolsters the case for a more recent origin. According to current models, the more massive the rings, the older they must be, and vice versa. The new study suggests that the rings are less massive than scientists suspected, which means they’re also younger. The study authors say their new estimate, combined with previous research, suggests the rings are 10 million to 100 million years old.
There’s plenty of wiggle room in that range. Other analyses focused on the margins of error in Cassini data suggest that parts of the ring system may be as old as 1.5 billion years.
Still, most scientists now agree that the rings did not form alongside Saturn. This leads us to yet another unresolved question: Where did the rings come from? A primordial origin story would have been a very convenient one: The young solar system was a chaotic mess of flying debris, and it would have been possible for Saturn to lasso some of it into a lasting orbit.
Scientists now suspect the rings are the fragmented bits of a cosmic interloper. A moon, a comet, or an asteroid must have strayed too close to the planet. Trapped between two gravitational forces—one tugging it toward Saturn, and the other drawing it away—the object broke into shards. Over time, the pieces flattened out into a delicate disk. “It’s like a graveyard spread around the planet,” says James O’Donoghue, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who studies the Saturn system.