Don't Miss The Planetary Show!

Although none of us would make the mistake of believing in a perfect, immutable version of the heavens ala Ptolemy, I think many of us still think that the solar system has looked just the way it does for many millions of years.

This may not be true. It is possible that the most active bodies in the solar system are performing in a way that is strictly a limited engagement - we should get up there and look more closely.

But some planetary scientists say that the rings' resplendence is hard to reconcile with a lifetime lasting billions of years1. The rings' particles are 90% water ice and should darken over time as they are struck by carbonaceous dust shed from comets and asteroids. “If you look at the rings of all the other planets — Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune — those rings are all very dark,” says Jeff Cuzzi, a planetary scientist at Ames. “That's kind of what you'd expect from heavily polluted material.”

According to Cuzzi, the sparkle of Saturn's rings suggests that something — perhaps an icy interloper from beyond Neptune or a large moon of Saturn itself — might have broken apart near the planet and formed the rings within the past few hundred million years, less than 10% of the planet's life so far. The brilliance would be fleeting, because the rings would “get duller and duller” over time, says Cuzzi.

Enceladus is a fairy moon. As it orbits Saturn, it sprinkles a glittering trail of ice — the E ring — thanks to watery geysers that shoot from its south pole. But researchers have struggled to explain how it can sustain such activity...

Io harbours hundreds of volcanic features, some of which spew plumes of sulphur and sulphur dioxide 500 kilometres into space — a distance that from Earth would reach further than the International Space Station. But the 90,000 gigawatts of heat released by Io is several times more than would be expected from the simplest models of tidal interactions between the moon and Jupiter. That mismatch suggests that “Io is more volcanically active in some periods than others”, says David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke introduced this idea to science fiction readers in his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey:

For the rings, as had been known since the nineteenth century, were not solid: that was a mechanical impossibility. They consisted of countless myriads of fragments - perhaps the remains of a moon that had come too close and had been torn to pieces by the great planet's tidal pull. Whatever their origin, the human race was fortunate to have seen such a wonder; it could exist for only a brief moment of time in the history of the Solar System.

As long ago as 1945, a British astronomer had pointed out that the rings were ephemeral; gravitational forces were at work which would soon destroy them. Taking this argument backward in time, it therefore followed that they had been created only recently - a mere two or three million years ago.

But no one had ever given the slightest thought to the curious coincidence that the rings of Saturn had been born at the same time as the human race.

Be sure to check out this fascinating article in Nature for many more details; thanks to Winchell Chung of Project Rho for pointing this out.

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