A Possible Solution for the Mystery of Saturn's Rings

By: Roni Leider  |  November 2, 2022

By Roni Leider

Nearly half the planets in our solar system have axial tilt and rings, an object that orbits around a planet in a flat-disc-shaped region, but none are as well known as Saturn’s. Saturn’s rings are brighter, more numerous, and more prominent than any of its neighbors, and the planet’s tilt is more pronounced. There has been extensive research regarding Saturn’s bizarre tilt and rings, but there is no definitive answer about the enigmatic nature of these aspects of the planet.

Throughout history, many theories have been proposed that explored the material of Saturn’s rings, as well as how they came to be. Originally, the rings were thought to be made up of asteroids, comets, or even shattered moons. Recently, a publication was released in the journal Science that many consider groundbreaking. The study proposes a further-researched theory regarding the origins of Saturn’s rings. 

Previously, researchers believed that Saturn’s rings have existed for billions of years, dating back to the planet’s formation. Saturn’s gravitational field was thought to lure surrounding asteroids and comets toward the planet, which were then compressed into rings. However, the journal Science argues that Saturn has not had its rings since its formation but acquired them much later. The study suggests that the rings formed somewhere between 100 million to 200 million years ago. 

If the rings were formed in this time frame and not during the formation of Saturn, then it is possible to conclude that they are an outcome of an external breaking, such as a comet or a moon–– as the initial hypothesis proposed. Nonetheless, investigating what exactly broke, as well as how it broke to form the rings, has been an arduous task.

The study suggests that Chrysalis, a hypothetical moon that would have been torn apart due to Saturn’s forces, advanced toward the planet’s gravitational pull. Chrysalis was too close in proximity to Saturn and was therefore destroyed. The destroyed fragments of the moon are hypothesized to have dwelled in Saturn’s orbit, essentially forming the planet’s rings

Furthermore, the study emphasizes a finding of NASA, which explains how an extinct moon is responsible for Saturn’s significant tilt. Prior to the study, scientists had theorized that Saturn’s tilt was due to Neptune’s gravitational pull. However, NASA proved this theory wrong when their Cassini mission revealed that Saturn was no longer in the range of Neptune’s grasp. Instead, it is believed that a small moon interrupted the pull between Saturn and Neptune, which occurred when another moon, Titus, exercised gravitational forces, which ultimately sent it speeding toward Saturn.

Dr. Frances Nimmo, a professor at the University of California, writes in the Science article that this finding “ties together two puzzles that had previously been treated as separate.” Jack Wisdom, a professor at MIT, stated, “[w]e like it because it’s a scenario that explains two or three different things that were previously not thought to be related. The rings are related to the tilt, who would ever have guessed that?” 

Despite the evidence, many are still skeptical, including Dr. Jack J. Lissauer, a scientist at NASA who wrote a thesis entitled “Dynamics of Saturn’s Rings.” Although he agrees that the theory seems valid to some extent, he believes that it is difficult to prove the occurrence of these celestial events and that it must remain a theory until solid evidence can be provided