How the planet got its signature look
Scientists have long struggled to explain how Saturn’s rings were formed and why its axis of rotation is tilted by a steep 27 degrees. In a new paper published, researchers hypothesize that the existence of a previously unknown moon could solve both of these mysteries at once.
Currently, four planets are known to have rings: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus. Saturn’s rings, composed of water ice particles, are the brightest. Saturn has 83 moons, according to NASA.
A number of theories have been proposed to explain this feature, but none have proven to be convincing. According to a well-known theory, Saturn got its tilt due to gravitational interactions with its neighbor Neptune. However, researchers involved in the new study argue that Saturn is no longer under Neptune’s gravitational influence.
Cassini-Huygens was sent on a mission to study Saturn and its moons. It was a joint collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. It was launched in 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. The mission ended in 2017. In recent years, we have been repeatedly blown away by the discoveries made possible by the collected data.
Observations from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggest Titan, Saturn’s largest satellite/moon is migrating at about 11 centimeters per year, 100 times faster than previous estimates. Titan’s rapid migration caused it to tilt even more, reducing Neptune’s gravitational influence on Saturn.
Following that, the researchers ran simulations of the planet’s axis of rotation and how it has changed over time. The experts said that this revealed that a former moon, Chrysalis, could be involved. Removing the moon gives Saturn its tilt, according to the model.
Chrysalis likely orbited Saturn for several billion years. Roughly 160 million years ago, it became unstable and came too close to its planet. The study hypothesized that this encounter likely pushed the moon away or disintegrated it, leading to the formation of the rings.
It may therefore have contributed to Saturn’s escape from Neptune’s grasp and caused the tilt. Future research will be needed to further corroborate these claims.