Saturn Might Have Torn a Moon Apart to Make its Rings

Saturn's rings in all their glory. Image from the Cassini orbiter as Saturn eclipsed the Sun. Image Credit: By NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
Saturn's rings in all their glory. Image from the Cassini orbiter as Saturn eclipsed the Sun. Image Credit: By NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Saturn is a world of surprises. The Voyager 1 and 2 flybys and later on, the Cassini mission, opened our collective eyes to intricate details in its rings and atmosphere. They also gave us up-close and personal looks at those amazing moons. But, one thing they didn’t show us was Saturn’s proposed moon Chrysalis. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Well, actually, it is there, but in the form of those dazzling rings.

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Jupiter's Giant Moons Prevent it From Having Rings Like Saturn

Saturn and its system of rings, acquired by the Cassini probe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When the name Saturn is uttered, what comes to mind? For most people, the answer would probably be, “its fabulous system of rings.” There’s no doubt they are iconic, but what is perhaps lesser-known is that Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune all have ring systems of their own. However, whereas Saturn’s rings are composed mainly of ice particles (making them highly reflective), Jupiter’s rings are composed mainly of dust grains. Meanwhile, Uranus and Neptune have rings of extremely dark particles known as tholins that are very hard to see. For this reason, none of the other gas giants get much recognition for their rings.

However, the question of why Jupiter doesn’t have larger, more spectacular rings than Saturn has been bothering astronomers for quite some time. As the larger and more massive of the two bodies, Jupiter should have rings that would dwarf Saturn’s by comparison. This mystery may have finally been resolved thanks to new research by a team from UC Riverside. According to their study, Jupiter’s massive moons (aka. Jupiter’s Galilean Moons) prevented it from developing a big, bright, beautiful ring system that would put Saturn’s to shame.

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A Spacecraft Orbiting the Moon Just Captured an Image of Saturn

Cameras can be finicky – especially ones primarily used for astronomy.  When used for a purpose other than their intended one, sometimes they result in horribly muddled or blurry images.  However, sometimes an image works out just right and provides a whole new perspective on a familiar scene.  That’s what happened recently when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) turned one of its cameras toward one of astronomy’s favorite places – Saturn.

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The Biggest Comet Ever Seen Will get as Close as Saturn in 2031

A graphic comparing the size of Comet 2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) to other solar system objects. Credit and copyright: Will Gater. Used by permission.

A mega-comet – potentially the largest ever discovered – is heading from the Oort Cloud towards our direction. Estimated to be 100–200 kilometers across, the unusual celestial wanderer will make its closest approach to the Sun in 2031. However, the closest it will come to Earth is to the orbit of Saturn.

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Using Saturn’s Rings to Figure out What’s Inside the Planet

An illustration of the Cassini probe. Measurements of the mass of Saturn's rings taken by Cassini allow scientists to estimate the age of the rings. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An illustration of the Cassini probe. Measurements of the mass of Saturn's rings taken by Cassini allow scientists to estimate the age of the rings. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s tough to see inside of Saturn, because the atmosphere is opaque to all wavelengths of radiation. We have to rely on computer simulations and physics-based guesswork to try to understand the interior of that giant world. But researchers are becoming more adept at a different technique: looking for the slightest motions in the rings of Saturn.

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Cassini Saw Methane in Enceladus’ Plumes. Scientists Don’t Know How it Could be There Without Life

Icy water vapor geysers erupting from fissures on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keeps scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet.

Researchers say they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found are likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis.

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Animation Shows how Saturn’s Rings Move at Different Speeds

Saturn's F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measure just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini

Saturn’s rings are one of the most recognized and revered celestial objects known to the human race. From a distance, they look like a disk of layered crystal or multicolored disks within disks that wrap around Saturn’s hazy umber face. When viewed up close, we see that these rings are actually particles of water ice (from microns to icebergs), as well as silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.

We would also noticed that the rings have some interesting orbital mechanics. In fact, each ring has a different orbit that is the result of its proximity to Saturn (i.e., the closer they are, the faster they orbit). To illustrate what this complex system look like, NASA Fellow Dr. James O’Donoghue created a stunning animation that shows how each of Saturn’s major ring segments (A-Ring to F-Ring) orbit together around the planet.

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Saturn Got Its Tilt From Its Moons

One of the fundamental tenets of physics is that two objects, now matter how different their size, exert a force on each other. In most cases the size makes a big difference, with the larger objects enacting a much greater force on the smaller one. 

However, over long periods of time, even much smaller objects can have an effect on the larger object in the pair.  Recently a team of researchers from CNRS, the Sorbonne, and the University of Pisa have found an example of the smaller object, or in this case group of objects, having an outsized impact on the larger one.  They have discovered that Saturn’s moons actually caused its famous tilt.

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Titan’s Atmosphere Has All the Ingredients For Life. But Not Life as We Know It

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona
A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a team of scientists has identified a mysterious molecule in Titan’s atmosphere. It’s called cyclopropenylidene (C3H2), a simple carbon-based compound that has never been seen in an atmosphere before. According to the team’s study published in The Astronomical Journal, this molecule could be a precursor to more complex compounds that could indicate possible life on Titan.

Similarly, Dr. Catherine Neish of the University of Western Ontario’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) and her colleagues in the European Space Agency (ESA) found that Titan has other chemicals that could be the ingredients for exotic life forms. In their study, which appeared in Astronomy & Astrophysics, they present Cassini mission data that revealed the composition of impact craters on Titan’s surface.

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Simulation Helps Explain Saturn’s Mysterious Hexagon

The smaller storms on Saturn interact with the larger system and as a result effectively pinch the eastern jet and confine it to the top of the planet. The pinching process warps the stream into a hexagon. Credit: Jeremy Bloxham and Rakesh K. Yadav

A new study of the mysterious hexagon-shaped storm at Saturn’s north pole suggests this phenomenon is actually the result of activity occurring across the entire planet.

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