Initially bright and made of ice, the bands over time become contaminated and darkened by interplanetary debris. "It was a classic, spectacular way to end the mission".
Now, data from the mission's grand finale is giving scientists insight into the extensive system, and it's potential age. Scientists used Cassini's trajectory to calculate the rings' gravity, which allowed scientists to estimate the rings' mass.
The idea that Saturn's rings could be used to study the seismology of the planet was first suggested in 1982, long before the necessary observations were possible. The researchers picked six of these orbits, measuring how the gravitational field around Saturn changed Cassini's velocity, and in turn, the microwave signal.
NASA's Cassini orbiter has been dead for well over a year now, but its incredible discoveries continue to trickle in as researchers pore over data and images it collected while it was active.
According to a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal, the ring particles respond to vibrations within Saturn much like a seismometer might to an quake.
"Two decades later, in the final years of the Cassini mission, scientists analyzed mission data and found ring features at the locations of Mark's predictions", said co-author Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the Cassini team.
"T$3 he rings have less than 100 million years to live".
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Thomas Stallard, from the U.K.'s University of Leicester, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek the results were "striking" as it "once again confirms a startling truth, that Saturn's rings have not existed in the solar system since the planet formed, but are relatively young".
"That turned out to be massive flows in the atmosphere at least 6,000 miles (9,000 km) deep around the equatorial region".
Scientists had previously relied on density waves, or ripples, through the rings caused by the motion of the 62 moons in Saturn orbit to estimate ring mass. Because Saturn is a gas giant with no solid surface, there are no physical landmarks to track as it rotates, and it also has an unusual magnetic field that makes its rotation rate hard to pin down, the Jet Propulsion Lab explains.
This is why the rings finding has been key to homing in on the length of day.
Saturn's E ring, meanwhile, has its own unique source: plumes of water vapor streaming into space from the moon Enceladus, believed to harbor an ocean beneath its surface. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. Others felt the rings were much younger, but lacked crucial data like their mass to estimate their age reliably. But the new calculation's range beats a 12-minute window. In effect, the rings act as an extremely sensitive seismograph by responding to vibrations within the planet itself.
While Saturn's rings may disappear in less than 100 million years because gravity is pulling them into the planet, apparently they haven't always surrounded the planet, either.