March 24, 2016
MOUNTAIN VIEW – New research suggests that some of Saturn’s icy moons, as well as its famous rings, might be modern adornments. Their dramatic birth may have taken place a mere hundred million years ago, more recent than the reign of many dinosaurs.
“Moons are always changing their orbits. That’s inevitable,” says Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute. “But that fact allows us to use computer simulations to tease out the history of Saturn’s inner moons. Doing so, we find that they were most likely born during the most recent two percent of the planet’s history.”
While Saturn’s rings have been known since the 1600s, there’s still debate about their age. The straightforward assumption is that they are primordial – as old as the planet itself, which is more than four billion years. However, in 2012, French astronomers found that tidal effects – the gravitational interaction of the inner moons with fluids deep in Saturn’s interior – are causing them to spiral to larger orbital radii comparatively quickly. The implication, given their present positions, is that these moons, and presumably the rings, are recent phenomena.