Saturn didn’t always have rings, according to new analysis of Cassini data

Saturn’s rings are younger than previously believed and could have been formed in the relatively recent past, according to new data gathered from the Cassini mission.

The Cassini spacecraft that was orbiting Saturn is no more, but before it expired it took a loop between the planet and its rings, acting as a gravity probe and uncovering data about the composition of the rings. By looking at the strength of the gravitational pull of the rings, scientists were able to estimate the amount of mass they contained, which turns out to be about 40 percent of the mass of Saturn’s moon Mimas. For reference, Mimas is 2,000 times smaller than Earth’s moon, meaning there is relatively little material in Saturn’s rings

saturn rings formation cassini 190468 web 1
Artist’s concept of the Cassini spacecraft shown against a real photo of Saturn and its rings as Cassini crossed the ring plane. NASA/JPL-Caltech

This indicates that Saturn’s distinctive rings are a relatively recent development as ring mass is correlated with ring age, meaning that the rings are certainly less than 100 million years old and perhaps as young as 10 million years old. Scientists had debated whether the rings were formed from icy debris at the same time as the planet, 4.5 billion years ago, or whether the rings were younger and were formed when Saturn’s gravity captured a comet or a Kuiper Belt object and pulverized it into rocks which orbited the planet. Now the evidence is in that Saturn was ring-less for a considerable time after its formation, and the rings were a later addition.

Scientists also used the data to understand Saturn’s surface and interior composition. They discovered that there were deep flowing winds in Saturn’s atmosphere, which were impossible to observe from space and which explain the gravitational fluctuations between planet and rings. The surface clouds around the equator of Saturn rotate four percent faster than the deep layer of clouds, which is around 6,000 miles deep.

“The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement. “The question is what causes the more rapidly rotating part of the atmosphere to go so deep and what does that tell us about Saturn’s interior.”

Emerging Tech

NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has a new job as a communication relay for Mars 2020

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter has been collecting atmospheric readings but now is taking on a new job as a data relay satellite for the Mars 2020 mission that launches next year.
Emerging Tech

After Kepler kicks the bucket, NASA releases its final image

The final images from the Kepler Space Telescope have arrived. After nearly a decade of operation, NASA’s groundbreaking telescope ran out of fuel last year and was placed into permanent sleep mode on October 30, 2018.
Emerging Tech

Curiosity says goodbye to the Vera Rubin Ridge with a 360 video

The Curiosity rover has been exploring the Vera Rubin Ridge on Mars for more than a year now, and it is time for the explorer to move on. But before it departs, Curiosity has captured a 360 video of its final drill site.
Emerging Tech

Kepler planet-hunting telescope goes dark after sending last light image

After a ten year career of discovering exoplanets and gathering the most detailed ever view of a dying star, NASA's Kepler spacecraft has sent its final image back to Earth. This "last light" image draws its remarkable journey to a close.
Emerging Tech

Groundbreaking new technique can turn plastic waste into energy-dense fuel

The world has a waste plastic problem. Chemists from Purdue University have a potentially game changing solution: They want to turn it into a gasoline or diesel-like fuel. Here's how.
Emerging Tech

After a record-setting 15 years, NASA ends Opportunity rover’s tour of Mars

NASA has officially called it quits on its record-setting Mars rover Opportunity, eight months after last hearing from the lander. The Rover landed on the Red Planet in early 2004.
Product Review

Yuneec’s Mantis Q will make you wish you bought a DJI drone

Yuneec’s high-end drones are arguably the ones to beat in terms of flight control, design, and their photographic capabilities. But the company has struggled to make a low-end drone that’s worth buying, and the Mantis Q is proof of that…
Emerging Tech

With CabinSense, cars will soon know who’s riding in them and respond accordingly

What if your car could know who's riding in it and customize the entertainment and safety options accordingly? That’s what's promised by the new CabinSense in-car Occupancy Monitoring System.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s ‘Refabricator’ lets astronauts recycle 3D-printed tools to make new ones

The International Space Station just received a fancy new gadget in the form of a Refabricator, a machine capable of 3D printing using recycled plastic materials. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

Words are so 2018. The Peeqo robot speaks exclusively in GIFs and video clips

Move over, Amazon Echo! Peeqo is a cute robot that will answer your spoken word questions by displaying a specially selected short video or GIF. Because, you know, it’s the year 2019.
Emerging Tech

Airbus will stop making the world’s biggest passenger plane

Airbus announced this week that it will stop building the world's biggest passenger plane in 2021. The maker of the double-decker A380 said a changing market and lack of orders gave it little choice but to end production.
Emerging Tech

Exploding vape pen battery starts fire on SkyWest flight

A vape pen battery caused a fire in an overhead bin on a SkyWest Airlines flight on Wednesday. It's the latest in a string of incidents where faulty or poorly made lithium-ion batteries have caused gadgets to catch fire.
Emerging Tech

Photosynthesizing artificial leaf may be the air-cleaning tool we’ve dreamed of

Engineers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have invented an artificial leaf which could both clean up our air and provide a cost-effective type of fuel. Here's how it works.
Mobile

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.