Department of Astronomy Center for Radiophysics & Space Research

Saturn rings young

December 19th, 2016
Saturn's inner C ring
NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab
Saturn's inner C ring spreads across the field of view, as taken from the Cassini spacecraft.

As a cosmic dust magnet, Saturn’s C ring gives away its youth. Once thought formed in an older, primordial era, the ring may be but a mere babe – less than 100 million years old, according to Cornell-led astronomers in a study to be published Jan. 1, 2017 in the journal Icarus.

“Saturn’s rings have always challenged scientists for their provenance. Water ice comprises the bulk of Saturn’s rings, yet it is the small fraction of non-icy material – the dust the ring collects – that is valuable for clues about the ring’s origin and age,” said Zhimeng Zhang, a doctoral candidate in the field of astronomy, who led the work.

Examining data from NASA’s Cassini mission – specifically from the spacecraft’s microwave passive radiometer – the scientists learned the thermal emission characteristics of the ring. Saturn’s C ring holds mostly ice, but the ring is polluted by silicate-containing dust.

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