Cassini data shows that Saturns rings formed when the dinosaurs roamed

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A recent study published in the journal Icarus suggested that Saturn's rings are a short-lived feature and they will be completely gone in around 300 million years.

Scientists have discovered that the rings formed between 100 million years and 10 million years ago. Saturn itself formed about 4.5 billion years ago in the early years of the solar system.

Before plunging to its death in Saturn's atmosphere in 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft took one final probe of the planet's unique rings.

"And with this work, Cassini fulfills a fundamental goal of its mission: not only to determine the mass of the rings, but to use the information to refine models and determine the age of the rings".

Lead researcher Luciano Iess, a planetary scientist at Sapienza University in Rome, said orbital motion sprayed the dust and other contaminants onto the icy rings at a constant rate. In another 100 million years, Saturn's most distinctive feature might be gone.

But in order to even get the right measurements, the scientists had to account for deep flowing winds in Saturn's atmosphere.

He continued: "Although we don't yet know why, something catastrophic happened, perhaps in the age of the dinosaurs, that resulted in Saturn having a ring system completely unlike Jupiter and the ice giants Uranus and Neptune". They estimate that around 10 tons (9,072 kilograms) of material is falling onto Saturn from the rings per second, as Meghan Bartels for Space.com writes.

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When Cassini zipped through Saturn's ring plane, mission managers allowed the planet, its rings and moons to gravitationally tug at the speeding spacecraft. These massive flows are moving about 4 percent slower than the upper atmospheric clouds that are visible, causing a gravitational anomaly that wasn't predicted.

"The discovery of deeply rotating layers is a surprising revelation about the internal structure of the planet", Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who did not participate in the study, said in a statement. The researchers estimate that the total mass of Saturn's rings is approximately 40 percent that of Saturn's moon Mimas. This orbital configuration allowed the disentanglement of the tiny acceleration of the rings from the large acceleration due to Saturn.

Iess said NASA's Voyager spacecraft - as well as Cassini - had already provided clues that the rings had not formed with Saturn.

Saturn's E ring, meanwhile, has its own unique source: plumes of water vapor streaming into space from the moon Enceladus, believed to harbour an ocean beneath its surface. Although these estimates were also low, astronomers have always assumed that there was some hidden mass in large blocks of material that went unseen.

A lesser mass indicates younger rings because as they age, the rings would attract more debris and grow heavier.

In case you were wondering, the mass of the rings reaches around 15 quintillion kilograms (about 16.5 quadrillion tons), roughly 5,000 times less mass than our own Moon.

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