Scientists Think the Death of An Ancient Moon Might’ve Given Saturn Its Iconic Rings and Tilt; Here’s How

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(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Be it stars in a binary system avowing themselves to each other for their remaining time ablaze or twin-supernovae withering in each other’s arms in true Romeo-and-Juliet-esque fashion, there is always an aspect of scintillating romance in the way cosmic bodies weave their stories. Our latest romantic tragedy comes from scientists speculating that Saturn’s most distinguishing feature might’ve actually arisen from the heart-tugging tragedy befalling one of its lunar satellites.

As many keen-eyed people might’ve noticed, most depictions of Saturn make the giant look slightly tilted, even in the vastness of space where there is scarce differentiation between up, down, left and right. And this is actually by design! Saturn rotates at a 26.7° angle about its plane of revolution around the Sun, forever making it look like it’s tipping its hat to our star in respect.

This kerning is a mystery scientists have been trying to unravel for decades. Some speculate that this might be arising from its interaction with Neptune, who also tilts at almost the same angle. But physics is known to throw tantrums unless there is complete order and equilibrium, leaving scientists confounded as they try to determine the reason behind that “almost”.

And now, astronomers from MIT might have a tear-jerking answer! They think that at one point, Saturn and Neptune were more than just solar system buddies; they might’ve actually spun in complete tilt resonance as they pranced around our Sun. The unique system of cosmic satellites around these planets probably helped keep gravitational forces in equilibrium to allow this romance to prevail.

However, perhaps all was not as well as it appeared, and one of Saturn’s largest moons — what astronomers have now termed ‘Chrysalis’ (after the shell a butterfly discards after transitioning) — flew into a frenzy under the heavy burden of maintaining their parent’s marriage, and crashed into the planet.

Chrysalis would’ve been about the same size as Iapetus, Saturn’s third largest moon. About 100-200 million years ago, the frantic satellite must’ve experienced a number of excruciatingly close encounters with cousin moons Iapetus and Titan before venturing so close to the parent planet that it was ripped to shreds by its gravity. While most of it was absorbed by the icy jumbo, some of it probably flew out, and Saturn adorned it like a cloak in stoic remembrance, giving it its iconic look.

Perhaps this loss was too much for the gassy giant, and it pushed Neptune forever away as a result of the collision. This might’ve led to the disparity in tilts between the planets, scientists reckon. This also explains why Saturn’s rings are much younger than the planet itself, another mystery that had many researchers dumbfounded.

“It’s a pretty good story, but like any other result, it will have to be examined by others,” says Jack Wisdom, professor of planetary sciences at MIT. “But it seems that this lost satellite was just a chrysalis, waiting to have its instability.”

We don’t know exactly what turmoil drove Chrysalis to the brink of hysteria. But we do know that if this theory is true, Saturn loved its lost 84th child so much, it decided to put a ring on itself.

T​his research was published in the journal Science on Friday, September 16, and can be accessed here.

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