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Saturn Opposition III

June 3, 2016

Saturn’s beautiful rings are constantly changing. Some of their bits of ice and rock spiral into Saturn’s atmosphere. Others change orbit as they’re kicked around by Saturn’s moons. And new particles join the rings when the moons get hit, blasting material out into space.

These changes make little difference to the overall appearance of the rings. But big changes may happen as well. Moons may be pulverized, creating new rings. Or ring material may coalesce to form new moons.

In fact, the entire ring system may have formed as recently as a hundred million years ago.

Just when the rings formed has been the topic of a lively debate. Most astronomers say the rings formed with Saturn itself. Others say they came along much more recently.

That includes a team that released a study earlier this year. Researchers mapped the orbits of many of Saturn’s icy moons, and projected those orbits back in time. Their simulations showed that several of the moons probably formed about a hundred million years ago. That suggests that Saturn had a different collection of moons in the past. A couple of those moons may have slammed together — destroying the moons, but giving Saturn its beautiful rings.

And Saturn is at its beautiful best right now. The planet rises at sunset, remains in view all night, and shines at its brightest. Look for it low in the southeast at nightfall, shining like a bright golden star. It’s to the lower left of even brighter Mars.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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