Saturn’s spectacular rings are ‘very young’

The end phases of the mission should yield new information about Saturn's interiorImage copyright Cassini Imaging Team/SSI/JPL/ESA/NASA
Image caption The end phases of the mission should yield new information about Saturn’s interior

We’re looking at Saturn at a very special time in the history of the Solar System, according to scientists.

They’ve confirmed the planet’s iconic rings are very young – no more than 100 million years old, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth.

The insight comes from the final measurements acquired by the American Cassini probe.

The satellite sent back its last data just before diving to destruction in the giant world’s atmosphere in 2017.

“Previous estimates of the age of Saturn’s rings required a lot of modelling and were far more uncertain. But we now have direct measurements that allow us to constrain the age very well,” Luciano Iess from Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, told BBC News.

The professor’s team has published an account of its work with Cassini in Science magazine.

Cassini: A mission of ‘astonishing discovery’

Cassini has been circling around Saturn for 13 years

On the icy moon Enceladus it discovered…

an ocean of water hidden beneath the surface

eight times as deep as the oceans on Earth.

Cassini’s chemical analysis of the water…

suggests conditions could be right for micro-organisms to live there.

While visiting Saturn’s largest moon

which is the size of the planet Mercury

Cassini flew over seas and lakes of methane

and discovered they are up to 170 metres deep.

On Saturn itself, above the north pole

Cassini took photos of a hexagonal hurricane 32,000km across.

Scientists have puzzled over how this giant storm spins.

Cassini measured its winds at a staggering 330mph

Four times as strong as a hurricane on Earth!

Back out on the edge of one of Saturn’s rings

among the clouds of ice particles

Cassini even captured the birth of a possible new moon.

It’s been named Peggy and is just 1km wide.

Finally, running out of fuel,

Cassini was flown directly towards the planet

until it burnt up in Saturn’s atmosphere.