Saturn’s clouds have roots deeper inside the planet’s atmosphere than scientists previously thought, and Saturn’s rings — now believed to have formed in the last 200 million years — appear to be raining organic molecules down on the planet, according to observations made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft last year in the final weeks of its mission.
Saturn’s icy 246-mile-wide moon Mimas (near lower left) appears tiny by comparison to the planet’s rings, but scientists think the all of the small, icy particles spread over a vast area that comprise the rings are no more than a few times as massive as Mimas. The view was obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at a distance of approximately 564,000 miles from Saturn.
Researchers from Japan and the Netherlands who were previously involved in the discovery of an exoplanet with huge rings have now calculated that the giant rings may persist more than 100,000 years — as long as the rings orbit in the opposite direction compared to that of the planet around the star.
Saturn’s shadow stretched beyond the edge of its rings for many years after the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini spacecraft first arrived at Saturn, casting an ever-lengthening shadow that reached its maximum extent at the planet’s 2009 equinox. This image captured the moment in 2015 when the shrinking shadow just barely reached across the entire main ring system.
The shadow of Saturn’s globe on the rings, which stretched across all of the rings earlier in the Cassini spacecraft’s mission, now barely makes it past the Cassini Division. The changing length of the globe’s shadow marks the passing of the seasons on Saturn. As the planet nears its northern-hemisphere solstice in May 2017, the shadow will get even shorter.
New research suggests that some of Saturn’s icy moons, as well as its famous rings, might be modern adornments. Their dramatic birth may have taken place a mere 100 million years ago. This would date the formation of the major moons of Saturn, with the exception of more distant Titan and Iapetus, to the relatively recent Cretaceous Period — the era of the dinosaurs.