Cassini Discovers Saturn's Rings Have Been Tricking Everyone

First Posted: Feb 04, 2016 04:39 PM EST

There may be less than meets the eye when it comes to Saturn's rings. NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found that Saturn's rings are far thinner than anyone expected.

Most assume that an opaque material should contain more stuff than a more translucent substance; for example, muddier water has more particles than clearer water. You might think that the same applies to Saturn's rings. However, researchers have now found that there's surprisingly little correlation between how dense a ring might appear to be in terms of its opacity and reflectiveness and the amount of materials it contains.

In this latest study, the researchers took a closer look at Saturn's B ring, which is the brightest and most opaque of Saturn's rings. In this case, the researchers found that while the opacity of the B ring varied by a large amount across its width, the mass didn't vary much from place to place.

"At present it's far from clear how regions with the same amount of material can have such different opacities," said Matthew Hedman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It could be something associated with the size or density of individual particles, or it could have something to do with the structure of the rings."

This research on the mass of Saturn's rings has important implications for the age of the rings. For example, a less massive ring would evolve faster than a ring containing more material, becoming darkened by dust from meteorites and other cosmic sources more quickly. Thus, the less massive the B ring is, the younger it might be.

"By 'weighing' the core of the B ring for the first time, this study makes a meaningful step in our quest to piece together the age and origin of Saturn's rings," said Linda Spilker, one of the researchers. "The rings are so magnificent and awe-inspiring, it's impossible for us to resist the mystery of how they came to be."

For more information about the Cassini mission, visit NASA's website.

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