The latest batch of Cassini observations concerning Saturn’s rings suggest that while packing less material Saturn’s B ring is less dense than previously thought.
The size and density of Saturn’s rings have been a constant challenge for scientists aiming to understand the planet’s and its rings formation process. Until recently it was almost certain that those opaque sections of Saturn’s rings would also be the largest and most dense. Packing more material also prompted them to be better reflective mediums. Thus, in most imaging observations, the opaque sections of Saturn’s rings appear to also be the brightest.
The others are dimmer and dimmer. As their brightness tones down by one notch, scientists assumed that these dimmer sections of Saturn’s rings are also less dense. Introducing a new technique to measure Saturn’s rings masses, scientists behind NASA’s Cassini mission were dumbfounded.
The apparent size and density of Saturn’s rings have been an illusion all along. In fact, while packing less material Saturn’s B ring is less dense than it was ever believed. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took a peek inside the ring and measured spiral density waves. At the same time, the research team compared the opaque sections and the dimmer sections of Saturn’s rings. While they look so different, appearance is deceiving. The weight was almost evenly spread throughout the different sections of Saturn’s Rings.
While this puffing of Saturn’s rings remains a mystery, there are other aspects to be considered. The data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft revealed that despite the apparent density of Saturn’s rings, this is not related to the material they actually contain. Saturn’s B ring is perceived as the most opaque and the brightest of the planet’s ring system. However, across its width, the mass did not vary in accordance with the perceived density. Previous studies had indicated that other rings of the planet’s main rings may present the same characteristics.
Determining the mass density by analyzing spiral density waves in different sections of Saturn’s B ring was key for this research. According to Matthew Hedman, lead author on the study and participating scientist with the Cassini mission at the University of Idaho, Moscow, declared that scientists are far from providing an answer as to why regions packing the same amount of material differ so much in opacity. Hedman hypothesis is that individual particles forming the ring may vary in density and size.
Nonetheless, more research is needed to fully understand what was taken for granted for a while and only recently debunked. The mass of Saturn’s rings is key to determining the rings’ age. In light of the study’s new findings, it’s possible that the age of Saturn’s rings will drop to just a mere couple of hundreds of millions.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia