The story begins, amazingly, with our moon. Researcher Luis Alves Teodoro from the University of Oslo’s Department of Technology Systems wanted to learn more about how our solar system came to be. The Moon plays a major role in Earth’s history.
-I had a teacher who was good at modeling. “We started making models of large structures in the universe, and discovered that we didn’t even know how our solar system came to be,” Teodoro explains. So, we started to look at how the moon appeared.
One NASA scientist suggested that they should also look at Saturn’s rings. According to Teodoro, theorists have long assumed that the rings formed early in Saturn’s history. The rings may be as old as Saturn itself, about four billion years.
When the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, and later Cassini-Huygens, an unmanned spacecraft, were launched to look at Saturn and its moons, they noted that the rings must be very young.
– There was a mismatch between theory and observations – and this is where we come into the picture, explains Teodoro.
This way they can tell the rings are small
Teodoro says there are several ways to reveal the age of rings. One is to look at how “thick” the ring is.
-When an object rotates, it becomes flat. The rings around Saturn are very flat. So, theorists thought this must happen over a long period, but that doesn’t have to be the case when they’re made of ice, Teodoro says.
Imagine an Italian pizza baker rolling the dough on his finger. Rotating makes the dough flat. Saturn’s rings underwent a similar process.
The rings are several hundred thousand kilometers wide, much wider than the Earth’s circumference. However, it is only one kilometer thick.
The fact that the flattening could occur faster than initially thought is due to the fact that it is composed of ice and not of rocks or other heavier objects, as researchers previously thought.
The word “new” means that it is so old that dinosaurs could have seen it come into existence
Since the rings are made of ice, there are also other elements that reveal that they cannot be old.
The rings are thought to have been composed of pure ice initially, Teodoro explains. Over time, some “dust” accumulated. Then the color of the ice will change. This is something researchers can measure.
In addition to becoming “dusty,” some of the dust will also be a source of corrosion or grinding. An ancient mountaintop may be steep at the top because wind and weather have weakened it over time. The newer mountaintop is steeper.
Constant collisions with other particles in space cause the ice to decompose. Therefore, Teodoro believes that it will probably not last over time.
– Teodoro explains that the flow of objects ensures that they are “polished” just like the erosion that occurs on the top of a mountain.
Since the rings exist, they must be new.
New in the astronomical sense means that it is about 100 million years old. This means that Tyrannosaurus rex would have seen the creation of these rings if it had a telescope.
But where does ice come from?
The original theory about the rings was that they were ancient, but observations have shown otherwise. It created the need for a new theory. So, Teodoro began to calculate what might happen.
He explains that he and other researchers created a model and ran a series of simulations. The researchers were able to create a model that matched what was observed.
In addition to explaining what we’re seeing, they also found something else that reinforces the theory:
“In addition to showing that rings can be small, we made some predictions about what can be seen in the rings,” he says.
The model he created predicts that all matter in a given ocean is affected by Saturn’s gravity. Therefore, it will end up on the surface of Saturn or in its rings.
– We wanted to see what happens if something comes within this range. Is there a mechanism that causes ice to enter this radius? And that’s it, Teodoro says.
Researchers assume that the ice itself appeared in a collision between two of Saturn’s moons. These moons were completely shattered in the impact.
The ice surrounding Saturn is composed of H2Ah, water, but conditions in space mean that ice is very different:
-It’s so cold that it changes the ice crystals. This means that the ice has different crystalline properties than the ice we are used to, Teodoro says.
Why does only Saturn have such distinctive rings?
Teodoro explains that there are several other planets that have traces of rings, such as Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus. Its rings are not clear, and this may be for other reasons:
-Maybe their rings are older. Teodoro says the reason the rings are so small may be corrosion.
However, he thinks it’s a bit strange.
It is believed that Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus are similar planets and must go through the same process
Perhaps such rings can appear and disappear within a short period of time, that is, a short period in the astronomical context, says the researcher.
Luis Alves Teodoro and others: The origin of a recent impact on Saturn’s rings and medium-sized moons. aAstrophysical Journal2023. DOI 10.3847/1538-4357/acf4ed
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