NOT everything looks lovelier the longer and closer its inspection. But Saturn does. It is gorgeous through Earthly telescopes. However, the 13 years of close observation provided by Cassini, an American spacecraft, showed the planet, its moons and its remarkable rings off better and better, revealing finer structures, striking novelties and greater drama. . . .
By and large the big things in the solar system—planets and moons—are thought of as having been around since the beginning. The suggestion that rings and moons are new is, though, made even more interesting by the fact that one of those moons, Enceladus, is widely considered the most promising site in the solar system on which to look for alien life. If Enceladus is both young and bears life, that life must have come into being quickly. This is also believed to have been the case on Earth. Were it true on Enceladus, that would encourage the idea that life evolves easily when conditions are right.
One reason for thinking Saturn’s rings are young is that they are bright. The solar system is suffused with comet dust, and comet dust is dark. Leaving Saturn’s ring system (which Cassini has shown to be more than 90% water ice) out in such a mist is like leaving laundry hanging on a line downwind from a smokestack: it will get dirty. The lighter the rings are, the faster this will happen, for the less mass they contain, the less celestial pollution they can absorb before they start to discolor. . . . Jeff Cuzzi, a scientist at America’s space agency, NASA, who helped run Cassini, told the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston that combining the mass estimates with Cassini’s measurements of the density of comet-dust near Saturn suggests the rings are no older than the first dinosaurs, nor younger than the last of them—that is, they are somewhere between 200m and 70m years old.
That timing fits well with a theory put forward in 2016, by Matija Cuk of the SETI Institute, in California and his colleagues. They suggest that at around the same time as the rings came into being an old set of moons orbiting Saturn destroyed themselves, and from their remains emerged not only the rings but also the planet’s current suite of inner moons—Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus and Mimas. . . .
Dr. Cuk and his colleagues used computer simulations of Saturn’s moons’ orbits as a sort of time machine. Looking at the rate at which tidal friction is causing these orbits to lengthen they extrapolated backwards to find out what those orbits would have looked like in the past. They discovered that about 100m years ago the orbits of two of them, Tethys and Dione, would have interacted in a way that left the planes in which they orbit markedly tilted. But their orbits are untilted. The obvious, if unsettling, conclusion was that this interaction never happened—and thus that at the time when it should have happened, Dione and Tethys were simply not there. They must have come into being later. . . .
Data provided by Cassini challenged the assumption that:
- Saturn’s ring system is composed mostly of water ice.
- there was life on earth when Saturn’s rings were being formed.
- new celestial bodies can form from the destruction of old celestial bodies.
- all big things in the solar system have been around since the beginning.
The main objective of the is to:
- establish that Saturn’s rings and inner moons have been around since the beginning of time.
- demonstrate how the orbital patterns of Saturn’s rings and moons change over time.
- highlight the beauty, finer structures and celestial drama of Saturn’s rings and moons.
- provide evidence that Saturn’s rings and moons are recent creations.
Based on information provided in the , we can infer that, in addition to water ice, Saturn’s rings might also have small amounts of:
- methane and rock particles.
- helium and methane.
- helium and comet dust.
- rock particles and comet dust.
The phrase “leaving laundry hanging on a line downwind from a smokestack” is used to explain how the ringed planet's:
- atmosphere absorbs comet dust.
- rings discolor and darken over time.
- rings lose mass over time.
- moons create a gap between the rings.
Based on information provided in the , we can conclude all of the following EXCEPT:
- Saturn’s lighter rings discolor faster than rings with greater mass.
- Saturn’s rings were created from the remains of older moons.
- none of Saturn’s moons ever had suitable conditions for life to evolve.
- Thethys and Dione are less than 100 million years old.
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