Using a telescope, scientists have been able to detect the rings of Saturn since the 16th century. The ring system is composed of ice and rock particles. The smallest particles are the size of dust grains, and the most massive are more than 20 meters in diameter.
Several theories have been put forth about the creation of Saturn’s rings. Some believe that the ring system was formed when comets collided with moons. Others believe that the ring system was created by tidal forces. These theories have caused scientists to re-examine the ages of Saturn’s rings. Some think the ring system is as old as the solar system, while other scientists think the rings are younger. But new research is providing evidence that the ring system on Saturn was created almost as recently as the planet itself.
The earliest rings were discovered in tombs of ancient Egypt. They were described as “circles of precious metal.” However, it was not until the 19th century that traditional distinctions between ring types had broken down. This was in part because the earliest rings were found in Egyptian tombs, but the style of ring worn by these tombs was not what we consider to be rings.
The Cassini spacecraft began its 13-year mission to Saturn in 2004. It returned images of the planet’s rings, and its measurements were based on brightness and mass. It also captured images of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is considered to be very young. Observations showed that the inner rings moved faster than the outer rings, suggesting the rings are not in their correct orbits.
During its flyby, the Voyager spacecraft revealed that the rings did not have as much mass as scientists had thought. They estimated that the rings were 10 million to 100 million years old. The Voyager spacecraft flew near the rings in the early 1980s, and observed a ring shadow that was very long. This shadow indicated that the ring was not as thick as previously thought.
Until the Voyager flyby, astronomers had believed that the rings had formed together with the planet. The rings were believed to have formed 4.6 billion years ago. But new research is challenging that assumption. Instead, the rings are very young. The rings could have been formed by a violent event 150 million years ago. The rings on Neptune and Uranus have less than half as many rings as those on Saturn.
The ring system on Saturn is unique in the solar system. Scientists have been trying to explain its formation. They are not sure whether the rings are created by the planet’s gravity or tidal forces. If the tidal forces caused the rings to form, they would have had an opportunity to disappear. But if the rings were created by the planet’s gravity, they would have remained intact. If the tidal forces pulled the moon close to the planet, the moon would have been sucked apart by the tidal forces.