We May Have Finally Solved the Mystery of Saturn's Rings


| LAST UPDATE 09/23/2022

By Stanley Wickens
Saturn ring moon discovery
da-kuk via Getty Images

Not all planets in our solar system come with fancy rings - but of those that do, Saturn is arguably the most notable for its celestial accessories. And although scientists had been studying the fascinating phenomenon for hundreds of years, it came as quite a shock when they discovered just how young Saturn's rings actually are...

According to scientists, Saturn's seven rings - first observed in 1610 by Galileo Galilei - are a far more complex structure than the circles of dust and rock that surround Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Its impressive rings move at different speeds, with tiny moons moving among them as they revolve around the giant planet. But perhaps the most peculiar thing about them is that they actually formed only 100 million years ago, far after the 4.5-billion-year-old planet came into existence. The question that has puzzled researchers ever since is: why did these rings emerge so long after the formation of our Solar System? According to a team of researchers led by MIT astronomer Jack Wisdom, the answer may lie in a hypothetical moon they called Chrysalis.

Saturn ring moon explosion

In their study, the researchers hypothesize that Chrysalis may have gotten a little too close to Saturn around 160 million years ago, and the immense gravity of the planet resulted in the explosion of the moon. As for who's to blame for the forgotten moon spinning out of orbit? Wisdom claims it's likely because of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Their paper proposes that "Saturn's obliquity increased as the [planet's] precession rate changed because of the migration of Titan; that it escaped the precession resonance because of an instability of the orbit of Chrysalis; and that a close encounter of this hypothesized satellite with Saturn led to the formation of its rings." Their research claims enough material remained from Chrysalis to continue orbiting the planet.

As for what this mysterious moon looked like, scientists still aren't sure. Seeing the vast amounts of ice scientists have observed in Saturn's rings, it's plausible the moon had an icy surface. Regardless of its properties, however, researchers aren't expecting a similar event to happen anytime soon. According to Cornell University astronomer Maryame El Moutamid, although the team's theory is plausible, the violent encounter between Saturn and the hypothetical Chrysalis was likely a rare occurrence. As for Wisdom and his team, their theory paves the way for endless discoveries yet to be made about Saturn's rings. Stay tuned!