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NASA’s Cassini space probe collected a myriad of data about Saturn before its mission ended in 2017.
Now, that data is helping scientists learn more about the planet and how it got its fascinating rings, Science Magazine reported.
Past research has shown that the water-ice rings encircling Saturn are more than 100 million years old. Their formation, however, has been a topic of speculation.
In a new study, a research team initially studied Saturn’s very peculiar 27-degree tilt of its spin axis.
The spin axis has surprised scientists because the planet was supposed to have a small tilt when it first formed billions of years ago – almost the same as Jupiter.
Instead, past research has shown that the spin axis has been affected by the gravitational effects of another planet, Neptune, as well as Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, drifting away from the planet – a process that continues to this day.
But researchers observed that Saturn and Neptune were even then not entirely in sync, and they set on determining how this happened. They ran hundreds of simulations of Saturn’s system, including some involving a hypothetical long-lost moon about the size of Iapetus, the planet’s third-largest satellite.
From 390 simulations, 17 of them showed that this moon – named Chrysalis – approached the gas giant about 160 million years ago and caused this orbital nudge.
Eventually, Saturn’s gravitational forces shredded Chrysalis millions of years ago and resulted in the iconic planetary rings.
Still, the authors acknowledged that more research is needed to determine if the cataclysmic event led to the eye-catching celestial phenomenon.