NASA’s Cassini spacecraft had a long and successful mission that spanned a couple of decades. Cassini gathered lots of data about the solar system on its way to crash into Saturn and end its mission back in 2017. Cassini may be gone, but scientists are still working through the data the spacecraft gathered over its mission.
A new analysis of gravity science data gathered by Cassini has shown that the rings of Saturn may have formed much later than the planet itself. NASA says that the data indicates the Saturn ring system formed between 10 million and 100 million years ago. That would mean that the rings formed around Saturn when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
The researchers looked at data that Cassini gathered in its final and very close orbits in 2017. Saturn itself formed about 4.5 billion years ago in the early years of the solar system. Before the age of the rings could be determined, NASA needed to know the mass of the rings to figure out how much material was held in them.
NASA scientists had data from Cassini and data from the Voyager spacecraft to use in their quest. As Cassini was running out of fuel and dipping towards its demise in the atmosphere of Saturn, it dipped between Saturn and its rings 22 times. As Cassini fell into the gravity field of Saturn each time, it was able to record gravity data scientists used to determine how much gravity was pulling on the spacecraft.
The data lends weight to a theory that suggests Saturn’s rings are the remnants of a comet that was captured by its gravity and ripped apart. Another theory suggests that there was some sort of event that broke up early icy moons.