Saturn’s Rings are Only 10 to 100 Million Years Old

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

Can you imagine the Solar System without Saturn’s rings? Can you envision Earth at the time the dinosaurs roamed the planet? According to a new paper, the two may have coincided.

Data from the Cassini mission shows that Saturn’s rings may be only 10 to 100 million years old. They may not have been there during the reign of the dinosaurs, and may in fact be a fairly modern development in our Solar System.

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Saturn is Losing its Rings, Fast. They Could be Gone Within 100 Million Years

It has been almost forty years since the Voyager 1 and 2 missions visited the Saturn system. As the probes flew by the gas giant, they were able to capture some stunning, high-resolution images of the planet’s atmosphere, its many moons, and its iconic ring system. In addition, the probes also revealed that Saturn was slowly losing its rings, at a rate that would see them gone in about 100 million years.

More recently, the Cassini orbiter visited the Saturn system and spent over 12 years studying the planet, its moons and its ring system. And according to new research based on Cassini’s data, it appears that Saturn is losing its rings at the maximum rate predicted by the Voyager missions. According to the study, Saturn’s rings are being gobbled up by the gas giant at a rate that means they could be gone in less 100 million years.

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Titan First-Ever Detected Dust Storms Prove the Moon is More Earth-like than Ever

Ever since the Cassini orbiter entered the Saturn system in July of 2004, scientists and the general public have been treated to a steady stream of data about this ringed giant and its many fascinating moons. In particular, a great deal of attention was focused on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which has many surprising Earth-like characteristics.

These include its nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the presence of liquid bodies on its surface, a dynamic climate, organic molecules, and active prebiotic chemistry. And in the latest revelation to come from the Cassini orbiter, it appears that Titan also experiences periodic dust storms. This puts it in a class that has so far been reserved for only Earth and Mars.

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Until We Get Another Mission at Saturn, We’re Going to Have to Make Do with these Pictures Taken by Hubble

This image of Saturn shows the planet and some of its moons in opposition. It's a composite image taken by the Hubble on June 6th, 2018. Image: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI); CC BY 4.0

We can’t seem to get enough of Saturn. It’s the most visually distinct object in our Solar System (other than the Sun, of course, but it’s kind of hard to gaze at). The Cassini mission to Saturn wrapped up about a year ago, and since then we’re relying on the venerable Hubble telescope to satisfy our appetite for images of the ringed planet.

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Cassini Data Has Revealed a Towering Hexagonal Storm at Saturn’s Northern Pole

A new study based on data from the Cassini mission is revealing something surprising in the atmosphere of Saturn. We’ve known about the storm at the gas giant’s north pole for decades, but now it appears that this massive hexagonal storm could be a towering behemoth hundreds of kilometers in height that has its base deep in Saturn’s atmosphere.

This grey-scale image of Saturn’s northern polar vortex was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. This image was captured from a distance of about 1.2 million km. A portion of Saturn’s rings are barely visible in the top right. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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New Photos of Saturn and Mars from Hubble

During the summer of 2018, the planets of Mars and Saturn (one after the other) have been in opposition. In astronomical terms, opposition refers to when a planet is on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the Sun. This not only means that the planet is closer to Earth in its respective orbit, but that is also fully lit by the Sun (as seen from Earth) and much more visible.

As a result, astronomers are able to observe these planets in greater detail. The Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of this situation to do what it has done best for the past twenty-eight years – capture some breathtaking images of both planets! Hubble made its observations of Saturn in June and Mars in July, and showed both planets close to their opposition.

Hubble’s high-resolution images of the planets and moons in our Solar System can only be surpassed by spacecraft that are either orbiting or conducting close flybys to them. However, Hubble has a major advantage over these types of missions, in that it can look at the Solar planets periodically and observe them over much longer periods of time than a passing spacecraft.

This composite image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on June 6th, 2018, shows the ringed planet Saturn with six of its 62 known moons. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI)

Hubble observed Saturn on June 6th, almost a month before it reached opposition on June 27th. At the time, the ringed gas giant was approximately 1.4 billion km (870 million mi) from Earth. Hubble was able to capture the planet’s magnificent ring system at a time when it was at its maximum tilt to Earth, which allowed for a spectacular view of the rings and the gaps between them.

Hubble’s new image of Saturn also managed to capture the hexagonal storm around the gas giant’s north pole. This stable and persistent jet stream was first observed by the Voyager 1 probe during its flyby of Saturn in 1981, and has been a mystery to astronomers ever since. On top of that, the new image also features six of Saturn’s 62 known moons – Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus, and Mimas.

Hubble’s new image of Mars was captured on July 18th, 13 days before it reached its closest approach to Earth. This year will see the Red Planet get as close as 57.6 million km from Earth, which is the closest approach made since 2003. On that occasion, Mars was just 55,757,930 km (34,647,420 mi) from Earth, which was the closest the planet had been to Earth in almost 60,000 years!

Mars is at opposition to Earth every two years, so Hubble has had many opportunities to capture detailed images of the planet’s surface. However, this new image is different in that it is dominated by a gigantic sandstorm that is currently encompassing the entire planet. This storm has been raging since May of 2018 and developed into a planet-wide dust storm within several weeks.

In mid-July the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observed Mars, only 13 days before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 2018. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

Dust storms are a common occurrence on Mars. They take place every year, usually stay contained to a local area, and normally last only about a few weeks. Larger dust storms that can grow to cover the entire planet are a rarer event, and can typically last for weeks or even months. These tend to happen during the spring and summer months in the southern hemisphere, which coincides with Mars being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit.

Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. While spacecraft orbiting Mars and rovers and lander can study storm behavior at lower altitudes or from the surface, Hubble observations allow astronomers to study changes in the higher atmosphere.

The combined observations will help planetary scientists to better understanding how these global storms arise. Despite the obscuring dust storm, Hubble still managed to capture several important Martian surface features like the polar ice caps, Terra Meridiani, the Schiaparelli Crater, and Hellas Basin – even though all of them appear slightly blurred in the image.

The Hellas Basin – an impact basin that measures 2200 km (1367 mi) across and is nearly 8 km (4.97 mi) deep – is visible at the lower right and appears as a large and bright oval area. The orange area in the upper center of the image is Arabia Terra, a large upland area in northern Mars. This region is characterized by many impact craters and heavy erosion, which indicates that it could be among the oldest terrains on the planet.

This annotated image of Mars shows features of the planet that were visible in summer 2018 despite a global dust storm. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

South of Arabia Terra are the dark streaks known as Sinus Sabaeus and Sinus Meridiani, features that stretch from east to west along the equator and are made of up dark bedrock and sand deposits from ancient lava flows. Because it was autumn in the northern hemisphere when the image was taken, it is covered in a bright blanket of clouds – and clouds can also be seen above the northern and southern polar ice caps. Last, but not least, Mars’ two small moons – Phobos and Deimos – appear in the lower half of the image.

Comparing these new images of Mars and Saturn with older data gathered by Hubble, other telescopes and the many probes that have taken images of them over the years will allow astronomers to study how cloud patterns and large-scale structures on the Solar planets change over time. These latest images also show that even after almost three decades of being in operation, Hubble is still able to pull its weight!

And be sure to enjoy this video about the images acquired by Hubble, courtesy of Hubblecast:

Further Reading: Hubble

Cassini’s “Grande Finale” Earns an Emmy Nomination!

An artist's illustration of the Cassini probe's Grand Finale. Image: NASA/JPL/CalTech

In 1997, the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission launched from Earth and began its long journey towards the Saturn system. In 2004, the Cassini orbiter arrived around Saturn and would spend the next thirteen years studying the gas giant, its rings, and its system of Moons. On September 15th, 2017, the mission ended when the probe entered Saturn’s upper atmosphere and burned up.

This was known as Cassini’s “Grand Finale“, which began with the probe plunging into the unexplored region that lies between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings and culminated with live coverage of it entering the atmosphere. In honor of the mission and NASA’s outstanding coverage of its final months, NASA was recently nominated for an Emmy Award by The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The award is in the category of Outstanding Original Interactive Program, which recognizes the JPL’s multi-month digital campaign that celebrated the mission’s science and engineering accomplishments – which included news, web, education, television and social media efforts. It is also a nod to the agency’s success in communicating why the spacecraft concluded its mission in the skies of Saturn.

Essentially, the spacecraft was intentionally destroyed in Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent the possibility of it contaminating any of Saturn’s moons. Throughout the thirteen years it spent studying the Saturn system, Cassini found compelling evidence for the possible existence of life on Titan and in Enceladus’ interior ocean. In addition, scientists have speculated that there may be interior oceans within Rhea and Dione.

In this respect, Cassini ended its mission the same way the Galileo probe did in 2003. After spending 8 years studying Jupiter and its system the moons, the probe crashed into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere in order to prevent any possible contamination of Europa or Ganymede, which are also thought to have an interior oceans that could support life.

The “Grand Finale” campaign began on April 26th, 2017, and continued until the craft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15th, 2017, with the spacecraft sending back science to the very last second. The campaign utilized several different forms of media, was interactive, and was very comprehensive, providing regular updates and vital information about the mission.

As NASA indicated on their Cassini website:

“The multi-faceted campaign included regular updates on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the Cassini mission website; multiple live social, web and TV broadcasts during which reporter and public questions were answered; a dramatic short film to communicate the mission’s story and preview its endgame; multiple 360-degree videos, including NASA’s first 360-degree livestream of a mission event from inside JPL mission control; an interactive press kit; a steady drumbeat of articles to keep fans updated with news and features about the people behind the mission; state-standards aligned educational materials; a celebration of art by amateur space enthusiasts; and software to provide real-time tracking of the spacecraft, down to its final transmission to Earth.”

The short film, titled “For Your Consideration: The NASA Cassini Grand Finale“, showcases the missions many accomplishments, pays tribute to all those who made it happen and who helped inform the public and communicate the importance of the mission.

The Primetime Emmys will be awarded be on September 17th in Los Angeles. The Creative Arts Emmys, which includes interactive awards, will be presented during a separate ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 15th, at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles. Other contenders include Back to the Moon, a Google Spotlight Stories App; Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab, Coco VR, and Spiderman Homecoming, three Oculus VR experiences.

And be sure to check out the videos, FYC: NASA Cassini Grand Finale, below:

Further Reading: NASA

Weekly Space Hangout: June 27 2018: Space News Roundup

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

The Weekly Space Hangout will be on hiatus July and August. Join us when we return in September!

Announcements:
Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Planets on Parade: Saturn at Opposition 2018

2018 planets

2018 planets
Saturn, Mars and Jupiter all beckon this summer. Image credit and copyright: Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer).

We’re in the midst of a parade of planets crossing the evening sky. Jupiter reached opposition on May 9th, and sits high to the east at dusk. Mars heads towards a fine opposition on July 27th, nearly as favorable as the historic opposition of 2003. And Venus rules the dusk sky in the west after the setting Sun for most of 2018.

June is Saturn’s turn, as the planet reaches opposition this year on June 27th, rising opposite to the setting Sun at dusk.

In classical times, right up until just over two short centuries ago, Saturn represented the very outer limit of the solar system, the border lands where the realm of the planets came to an end. Sir William Herschel extended this view, when he spied Uranus—the first planet discovered in the telescopic era—slowly moving through the constellation Gemini just across the border of Taurus the Bull using a 7-foot reflector (in the olden days, telescopes specs were often quoted referring to their focal length versus aperture) while observing from his backyard garden in Bath, England on the night of March 13th, 1781.

vesta
Looking east tonight at sunset… note Vesta to the upper left. Credit: Stellarium.

Orbiting the Sun once every 29.5 years, Saturn is the slowest moving of the naked eye planets, fitting for a planet named after Father Time. Saturn slowly loops from one astronomical constellation along the zodiac to the next eastward, moving through one about every two years.

path of saturn
The path of Saturn through 2018. Image credit: Starry Night Education software.

2018 sees Saturn in the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, just above the ‘lid’ of the Teapot asterism, favoring the southern hemisphere for this apparition. Saturn won’t cross the celestial equator northward again until 2026. Not that that should discourage northern hemisphere viewers from going after this most glorious of planets. A low southerly declination also means that Saturn is also up in the evening in the summertime up north, a conducive time for observing. Taking 29-30 years to complete one lap around the ecliptic as seen from our Earthly vantage point, Saturn also makes a great timekeeper with respect to personal life milestones… where were you back in 1989, when Saturn occupied the same spot along the ecliptic?

Saturn also shows the least variation of all the planets in terms of brightness and size, owing to its immense distance 9.5 AU from the Sun, and consequently 8.5 to 10.5 AU from the Earth. Saturn actually just passed its most distant aphelion since 1959 on April 17th, 2018 at 10.066 AU from the Sun.

Saturn’s in 2018 Dates with Destiny

Saturn sits just 1.6 degrees south of the waning gibbous Moon tonight. The Moon will lap it again one lunation later on June 28th. Note that the brightest of the asteroids, +5.7 magnitude 4 Vesta is nearby in northern Sagittarius, also reaching opposition on June 19th. Can you spy Vesta with the naked eye from a dark sky site? 4 Vesta passes just 4 degrees from Saturn on September 23rd, and both flirt with the galactic plane and some famous deep sky targets, including the Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae.

Saturn reaches quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on September 25th, then ends its evening apparition when it reaches solar conjunction on New Year’s Day, 2019.

Saturn is well clear of the Moon’s path for most of this year, but stick around: starting on December 9th, 2018, the slow-moving planet will make a great target for the Moon, which will begin occulting it for every lunation through the end of 2019.

It’s ironic: Saturn mostly hides its beauty to unaided eye. Presenting a slight saffron color in appearance, it never strays much from magnitude -0.2 to +1.4 in brightness. One naked eye observation to watch for is a sudden spurt in brightness known as the opposition surge or Seeliger Effect. This is a retro reflector type effect, caused by all those tiny iceball moonlets in the rings reaching 100% illumination at once. Think of how the Full Moon is actually 3 to 4 times brighter than the 50% illuminated Quarter Moon… all those little peaks, ridges and crater rims no longer casting shadows do indeed add up.

Saturn
Saturn in all its glory (note the moons Enceladus and Tethys, too!). Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

And this effect is more prominent in recent years for another reason: Saturn’s rings passed maximum tilt (26.7 degrees) with respect to our line of sight just last year, and are still relatively wide open in 2018. They’ll start slimming down again over the next few oppositions, reaching edge-on again in 2028.

Even using a pair of 7×50 hunting binoculars on Saturn, you can tell that something is amiss. You’re getting the same view that Galileo had through his spyglass, the pinnacle of early 17th century technology. He could tell that something about the planet was awry, and drew sketches showing an oblong world with coffee cup handles on the side. Crank up the magnification using even a small 60 mm refractor, and the rings easily jump into view. This is what makes Saturn a star party staple, an eye candy feast capable of drawing the aim of all the telescopes down the row.

If seeing and atmospheric conditions allow, crank up the magnification up to 150x or higher, and the dark groove of the Cassini division snaps into view. Can you see the shadow of the disk of Saturn, cast back onto the plane of the rings? The shadow of the planet hides behind it near opposition, then becomes most prominent towards quadrature, when we get to peek around its edge. Can you spy the limb of the planet itself, through the Cassini Gap?

Though the disk of Saturn is often featureless, tiny swirls of white storms do occasionally pop up. Astrophotographer Damian Peach noted just one such short-lived storm on the ringed planet this past April 2018.

Saturn’s retinue of moons are also interesting to follow in there own right. The first one you’ll note is +8.5 magnitude smog-shrouded Titan. Larger in diameter than Mercury, Titan would easily be a planet in its own right, were it liberated from its primary’s domain.

Though Saturn has 62 known moons, only six in addition to Titan are in range of a modest backyard telescope: Enceladus, Rhea, Dione, Mimas, Tethys and Iapetus. Two-faced Iapetus is especially interesting to follow, as it varies two full magnitudes in brightness during its 79 day orbit. Arthur C. Clarke originally placed the final monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey on this moon, its artificial coating a beacon to astronomers. Today, we know from flybys carried out by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that the leading hemisphere of Iapetus is coated with dark in-falling material, originating from the dark Phoebe ring around Saturn.

iapetus
Two-faced Iapetus as imaged by Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Owners of large light bucket telescopes may also want to try from two fainter +15th magnitude moons: Hyperion and Phoebe.

Fun fact: Saturn’s moons can also cast shadows back on the planet itself, much like the Galilean moons do on Jupiter… the catch, however, is that these events only occur around equinox season in the years around when Saturn’s rings are edge-on. This next occurs starting in 2026.

Cassini finished up its thrilling 20 year mission just last year, with a dramatic plunge into Saturn itself. It will be a while before we return again, perhaps in the next decade if NASA selects a nuclear-powered helicopter to explore Titan. Until then, be sure to explore Saturn this summer, from your Earthbound backyard.

Love to observe the planets? Check out our new forthcoming book, The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos – out on October 23rd, now up for pre-order.