Saturn’s rings may be the result of a moon colliding with the planet 160 million years ago

A new study has found that Saturn’s famous rings may have been the result of an ancient moon colliding with the planet about 160 million years ago.

The moon, called Chrysalis, orbited the gas giant for several billion years before colliding with it and disintegrating.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) performed calculations that identified changes in Saturn’s rotation axis over time.

Their results indicate that another object once orbited it, but when it got too close to the gas giant, it was torn to shreds and forming rings.

The loss of this moon also explains why Saturn is tilted at an angle of 26.7 degrees in its rotation, which is indicated by its fast rings.

Lead author Professor Jack Wisdom said: “Just like a butterfly cocoon, this satellite had been dormant for a long time and suddenly became active and the rings appeared.”

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) performed calculations that identified changes in Saturn’s rotation axis over time. Their results indicate that another object once orbited it, but when it got too close to the gas giant, it ripped to shreds and formed rings (stored image)

Astronomers believe that Saturn's inclination comes from the fact that it is in

Astronomers believe that Saturn’s tilt comes from the fact that it has been in “orbital resonance” with its neighbor Neptune since the early 2000s. Pictured: Saturn as it approached its closest point to Earth this year

Saturn: the basics

distance from the sun: 1.434 billion km

orbital: 29 year

surface area: 42.7 billion square kilometers

radius: 58232 km

Mass: 5.683 x 10^26 kg (95.16 m3)

Length of the day: 0 day 10 h 42 d

moons: 83 with official designations; Unlimited additional satellites

Since the early 2000s, astronomers have believed that Saturn’s tilt comes from the planet’s “orbital resonance” with its neighbor Neptune.

Two planets have resonance if their orbital periods are synchronized and they exert a uniform gravitational influence on each other.

The resonance theory arose because Saturn “advances” – or wobbles – as it orbits at roughly the same rate as Neptune’s orbit.

But observations by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, suggested that its largest moon, Titan, could actually be responsible for the wobble.

This is because Titan is migrating away from Saturn faster than expected, at a rate of about 11 centimeters per year, and so it was thought that the moon’s gravity could cause the planet to tilt.

However, this theory relies on Saturn’s moment of inertia – or how mass is distributed in the planet’s interior – which is still unknown.

Its inclination can behave differently, depending on whether the substance is more concentrated in its core or towards the surface.

Observations by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, indicate that its largest moon, Titan, caused the planet to tilt as it migrates away.

Observations by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017, indicated that its largest moon, Titan, caused the planet to tilt as it migrated away.

Saturn's hypothetical moon Chrysalis collided with Saturn and was torn to shreds, allowing Saturn and Neptune to lose their resonance as the moon's gravitational influence disappeared.

Saturn’s hypothetical moon Chrysalis collided with Saturn and was torn to shreds, allowing Saturn and Neptune to lose their resonance as the moon’s gravitational influence disappeared.

The constant outward migration of Titan and its effect on the Saturn-Neptune echo mean that Saturn's tilt subsequently decreased, but remained at its current value of 26.7 degrees.

The constant outward migration of Titan and its effect on the Saturn-Neptune echo mean that Saturn’s tilt subsequently decreased, but remained at its current value of 26.7 degrees.

In their study, published today in the journal Science, the scientists used some of the latest observations taken by Cassini to map Saturn’s gravitational field.

They then used that data to model the distribution of mass within the planet and calculate the moment of inertia.

They were surprised to find that the newly determined moment of inertia put Saturn close to Neptune, but outside the range of resonance with Neptune.

This suggests that the planets may have once been synchronous but no longer.

Professor Wisdom said, “Then we went to find ways to get Saturn out of the echo of Neptune.”

Pictured: Titan, at ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, taken by the Cassini spacecraft

Pictured: Titan, at ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, taken by the Cassini spacecraft

How did the chrysal affect creep?

Chrysalis is the 84th hypothetical moon of Saturn, which may have orbited the planet until 160 years ago.

It would have been the size of Saturn’s third largest moon, Iapetus.

Their gravity kept Saturn and Neptune in resonance – the periods of their orbits were synchronized.

However, sometime between 200 and 100 million years ago, it entered a chaotic orbital region and then collided with Saturn and was torn to shreds.

The loss of the cocoon and its attraction led to Saturn’s inclination of 26.7 degrees, and it moved slightly outside the range of resonance with Neptune.

The debris left by the collision formed its icy rings.

The researchers re-examined the mathematical equations that describe how Saturn’s axis of rotation changes over time.

They hypothesized that the tilt of Saturn’s axis could be affected by the loss of the Moon, as this would have knocked it out of Neptune’s resonance.

For the result of these phenomena, the hypothetical moon 84 – Chrysalis – must be the size of the third largest moon on the planet, Iapetus.

The team concluded that when in orbit, Chrysalis pulled and pulled Saturn in a way that kept its tilt in line with Neptune.

However, it is likely that the Moon entered a chaotic orbital region sometime between 200 and 100 million years ago.

This means that the satellite experienced a number of close encounters with Iapetus and Titan, and eventually got very close to Saturn about 160 million years ago.

The collision tore the cocoon to shreds, allowing Saturn and Neptune to lose their echo as the Moon’s gravitational influence disappeared.

The continuous outward migration of Titan and its effect on the Saturn-Neptune echo mean that Saturn’s tilt subsequently decreased, but remained at its current value of 26.7 degrees.

A small part of the cocoon’s mass remained suspended in orbit, and it shattered into pieces of ice and formed rings of debris.

Professor Wisdom added: ‘It’s a very good story, but like any other finding, it needs to be scrutinized by others.

“But it seems that this missing satellite was just a cocoon, waiting to be unsettled.”

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