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Saturn Rings have been Around for about 4 Billion Years: NASA

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Mar 28, 2013 04:48 AM EDT
The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn's moons set against the darkened night side of the planet.
Saturn is present on the left this image but is too dark to see. Rhea (1,528 kilometers, or 949 miles across) is closest to Cassini here and appears largest at the center of the image. Enceladus (504 kilometers, or 313 miles across) is to the right of Rhea. Dione (1,123 kilometers, or 698 miles across) is to the left of Rhea, partly obscured by Saturn.

This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane. (Photo : NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute )

The rings around Saturn are bodies that have been around for more than 4 billion years, from a time when the solar system was in its infancy, according to NASA. The recent coloring on the rings' surface is due to recent "pollution" from a rain of meteoroids from beyond the solar system.

The data, obtained by the Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS), has now shown how rings made of water and ice are spread across the Saturnian system. The analysis of spectrometer revealed that the color on the rings is limited to the surface.

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Researchers hypothesize that the water ice levels around Saturn is too great to be deposited by passing comets. Instead, they suggest that the rings might have formed when the solar system bodies were being formed out of the protoplanetary nebula. Since Saturn resides beyond the Sun's 'snow line', the temperature is cold enough to preserve the ice.

Gianrico Filacchione, a Cassini participating scientist at Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, Rome, has published a paper on the subject in the Astrophysical Journal.

"Studying the Saturnian system helps us understand the chemical and physical evolution of our entire solar system. We know now that understanding this evolution requires not just studying a single moon or ring, but piecing together the relationships intertwining these bodies," said Filacchione in a news release.

The coloration of the rings and moons around Saturn depends on their location in the system, researchers found. For example, bodies belonging to the inner circle are most likely whitish, while those farther out are reddish.

"Observing the rings and moons with Cassini gives us an amazing bird's-eye view of the intricate processes at work in the Saturn system, and perhaps in the evolution of planetary systems as well. What an object looks like and how it evolves depends a lot on location, location, location," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, based at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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