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Saturn's rings a chaotic clutter
The serene and majestic rings of Saturn are actually a rough and violent mix of frozen particles, according to scientists.

Published in the journal Science, the researchers describe the Saturnian system's rings as an analogy for what the early solar system may have been like.

The study is the result of six years of data gathered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn in 2004.

The paper's lead author Dr Jeff Cuzzi of NASA's Ames Research Centre in California, says the rings are an elegant mess of activity.

"Cassini has shown us that collisions are routine and chunks of ice leave trails of debris in their wake," says Cuzzi.

"It's also shown how small moons play tug-of-war with ring material. And how bits of rubble that would otherwise join together to become moons are ultimately ripped apart by Saturn's gravity.

"During equinox, when sunlight hits the rings exactly edge on, Cassini saw normally flat rings, just tens of meters thick, being flipped up by thousands of metres."

Cassini results also reveal dramatic variability in Saturn's rings on scales as short as decades, years, even weeks.
Unique rings

Through Cassini, scientists have also learnt that the rings are mostly water ice, with a mysterious reddish contaminant.

Cuzzi says that could be rust or small organic molecules similar to those found in red vegetables.

All the solar system's outer planets have rings, but Saturn's are special because of their greater mass and the purity of its ice particles.

Since the Voyager spacecraft passed Saturn in the 1980s, scientists believe the planet's rings are continuously regenerated; unlike the dusty rings of Uranus, Jupiter and Neptune, which were probably the result of a small moon being destroyed by an impact.

This suggests Saturn's rings may only be a tenth of the age of the solar system - quite a challenge given their large mass.

While the results can't confirm or deny the theory, researchers believe the turbulent nature of the rings leave the possibility open.

"Explanations for the origin of Saturn's rings will remain unconvincing until we have understood the powerful dynamical processes that have formed, and continue to shape, these elegant structures on time scales reaching from yesterday to billions of years," the researchers write.
Deepening mystery

Planetary scientist Dr Andrew Prentice Monash University in Melbourne says Cassini has dramatically changed our understanding of the Saturnian rings.

"Instead of clearing up the mysteries of the rings, we're now even more baffled than before," he says. "The fact that the rings are mostly water ice remains the number one mystery."

Prentice says Cassini's cameras are proving to be "amazing".

"They've shown us complicated wave and spoke structures in the rings, opening up a real Pandora's Box of questions," he says.

Having completed its primary mission, Cassini's operation was recently extended for another seven years.

"That's seven more years of science and so much more data," say Prentice. "There are just so many things that remain unexplained".

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