Saturn could have its rings by killing one of its moons

Saturn could have its rings by killing one of its moons

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway / The Daily Beast

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway / The Daily Beast

Saturn’s rings are one of the most iconic structures in the entire solar system. Made up of billions of tiny pieces of ice and rock as small as dust and as large as a family home, the rings stretch about 175,000 miles from the planet. Yet they are only about 30 feet thick vertically, paper thin than a planet. And they orbit Saturn with a peculiar inclination of 26.7 degrees. Scientists still have no idea how these rings ended up here in the first place.

But a new modeling study by MIT scientists suggests that the origin story of the rings is something a little more gruesome: the violent death of an ancient moon, at the hands of Saturn.

Today’s Saturn is home to 83 moons. The new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, speculates that for billions of years the planet has hosted another moon, called Chrysalis. The two bodies existed in harmony.

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A view of Saturn taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019.

NASA, ESA

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A view of Saturn taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019.

NASA, ESA

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A view of Saturn taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019.

NASA, ESA

But according to the new model built by the researchers, it appears that 160 million years ago, Chrysalis lost stability and found itself in orbit too close to Saturn. The planet’s enormous gravitational forces have split the moon apart, tearing it to shreds relatively quickly. The destruction of the moon was, in fact, powerful enough to sever the gravitational bonds that Saturn once had with Neptune and led Saturn to acquire its characteristic inclination.

The remains of Chrysalis probably fell into Saturn. But the researchers think a fraction of those pieces may have remained in orbit and eventually broke into the tiny icy fragments that now make up Saturn’s massive rings.

Ultimately, the new study appears to not only explain why Saturn has a tilt, but also why the rings are a fairly new phenomenon (previously estimated to be only around 100 million years old).

Is this frozen moon our best chance to find alien life?

“Just like the chrysalis of a butterfly, this satellite sat inactive for a long time and suddenly became active, and the rings emerged,” Jack Wisdom, an MIT planetary scientist and lead author of the new study, said in a news release.

The new modeling was made possible thanks to data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in September 2017, during the final moments of its mission when it self-destructed in Saturn’s atmosphere. These observations helped shed light on Saturn’s gravitational field and inertia, which helped reveal that Neptune and Saturn had once been gravitationally synchronized with each other. The team tried to understand this story and resulted in a modeling that finally proposed the existence of Chrysalis a long time ago.

“It’s a good story,” Wisdom said. “Like any other result, it will have to be examined by others. But it seems that this lost satellite was just a chrysalis, waiting to have its instability.

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