New research suggests that some of Saturn's icy moons, as well as itsfamous rings, might be modern adornments. Their dramatic birth may have taken place a mere hundred million years ago, more recent than the reign of many dinosaurs.
"Moons are always changing their orbits. That's inevitable," says Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute. "But that fact allows us to use computer simulations to tease out the history of Saturn's inner moons. Doing so, we find that they were most likely born during the most recent two percent of the planet's history.
"While Saturn's rings have been known since the 1600s, there's still debate about their age. The straightforward assumption is that they are primordial – as old as the planet itself, which is more than four billion years. However, in 2012, French astronomers found that tidal effects – the gravitational interaction of the inner moons with fluids deep in Saturn's interior – are causing them to spiral to larger orbital radii comparatively quickly. The implication, given their present positions, is that these moons, and presumably the rings, are recent phenomena.
Cuk, together with Luke Dones and David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute, used computer modeling to infer the past dynamic behavior of Saturn's icy inner moons. While our own moon has its orbit around Earth to itself, Saturn's many satellites have to share space with each other. All of their orbits slowly grow due to tidal effects, but at different rates. This results in pairs of moons occasionally entering so-called orbital resonances. These occur when one moon's orbital period is a simple fraction (for example, one-half or two-thirds) of another moon's period. In these special configurations, even small moons with weak gravity can strongly affect each other's orbits, making them more elongated and tilting them out of their original orbital plane.