According to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, Saturn’s B ring has been fooling us all. A study published recently in the Icarus journal has revealed that there is actually an optical illusion at play, which makes the rings more dense than they actually are.
Researchers have examined the inner side of Saturn’s B ring by making use of data collected from NASA’s Cassini orbiter.
Saturn’s B ring is the vastest, greatest and most opaque ring of its entire system and the study has revealed that it appears more opaque in some areas than in others. This alluded the scientists, by making them believe it was much denser.
Some parts of the B ring could be only one-seventh as dense than what scientists initially believed; this is the first experiment to have confirmed these suspicions. The results were obtained with the help of Cassini, which measured the density waves moving across the B ring in reaction to the gravitational pulls from the nearly located moons.
Matthew Hedman, Professor at the University of Idaho, remarks that it’s not yet clear how areas which possess the same amount of material can present such different levels of opacity, but he believes it may be associated with the density or magnitude of various particles or it could be attributed to the structure of the rings altogether.
By weighing Saturn’s rings we can determine how long they have existed in the Universe. Scientists now estimate that the B ring could only be a few hundred million years old, instead of billions of years, as it was previously assumed.
Researchers are relying upon the Cassini orbiter to provide them with more answers. In 2017 the orbiter is set to be moved inside the ring structure in order to measure Saturn’s mass without the rings. Since we already know the total mass of the system, the resulting amount will tell us exactly how big the ring system is.
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the farthest that can be seen by the human eye. Its ring system was famously discovered in 1610 by the astronomer Galileo Galilei. This planet makes its way around the Sun once every 29.4 Earth years.
It is basically made of hydrogen and has 150 moons. Its average radius is around nine times bigger than Earth’s. Up until now, four spacecrafts have reached Saturn: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2 and the Cassini-Huygens.
Image Source: AstroBob