A strange phenomenon in Saturn's rings is warming the planet

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In the solar system we find a great variety of worlds of different sizes, characteristics and temperatures. The rings that accompany Saturn are one of the best known and most peculiar. Since its discovery by Galileo and its correct observation by Huygens, a great passion has been created by the public and researchers to understand them better. From past probes that flew over the planet, such as Galileo, Voyager and Pioneer 11 and the Cassini orbiter, to the current Hubble and Webb, a constant monitoring is done to better understand its evolution over time.

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False-color photograph of the planet Saturn at ultraviolet wavelengths, showing intensity in blue scales. This one highlights a line below the rings. Credits: ESA/Hubble, NASA & L. Ben-Jaffel

A possible origin

Humanity came at an ideal time to observe Saturn's rings, since they are slowly disappearing. They are thought to have been formed by a moon that was shattered by tidal forces upon impact with the planet. According to current models they appeared astronomically only recently, around 100 million years ago. 50 million years earlier the collision would have occurred, tilting it slightly, but leaving enough material in orbit to form the striking structures, some of the material could have clumped together to form the so-called shepherd moons.

The rings, besides being visually very striking, are an incredibly complex ecosystem. Composed mainly of large dust, many fragments and a considerable amount of ice, they have a system that allows them to remain stable. Between the ten rings are small moons that are responsible for shaping and dividing them.

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True-color photograph of Saturn's rings as seen by the Cassini probe. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Star shower

Thanks to a new study, using images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini probe, astronomers have found an interesting phenomenon associated with the rings.. The nearest ice and dust fragments may be falling on the planet, generating rain that warms the equatorial region, affecting the climate in nearby areas.

This was known thanks to the detection of an excess of ultraviolet radiation in a spectral line of hydrogen. The most plausible explanation is a constant rain of ice fragments, which could only fall steadily from preventing the rings from falling.. These can alter their orbit for various reasons, such as micrometeorites, cosmic rays or electromagnetic forces.

Thanks to historical records from the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, Cassini and Hubble, it has been possible to study these changes over time. Although it was originally believed that large variations in UV radiation were instrument problems, it was necessary to use Hubble's STIS instrument, capable of capturing spectrographic images of the planet. In order to provide a concrete answer it was necessary to employ Hubble's STIS instrument, capable of capturing spectrographic images of the planet.

Using Hubble measurements as a calibration system, data from up to four decades were compared. These showed zero variation between the different seasons of Saturn's year. Even with the solar cycles themselves. Continued research to be sure of the explanation, if true, offers a great tool to find and study planetary rings on worlds beyond the solar system.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza