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Saturn’s Rings and Moons: Collision Course Revealed by Supercomputer Simulations

This June 2023 image provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute shows the planet Saturn and three of its moons, from left, Enceladus, Tethys and Dione, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.InternationalIndiaAfricaA series of supercomputer simulations has unraveled the long-standing mystery surrounding the origins of Saturn’s majestic rings and icy moons. Recent research suggests that Saturn’s iconic rings may have formed from the cataclysmic collision of two icy moons, akin in size to the present-day Dione and Rhea.New insights into the formation of Saturn’s rings and moons have emerged from a comprehensive study employing high-resolution supercomputer simulations. The research, a collaboration between NASA and the universities of Durham and Glasgow, proposes that Saturn’s rings could be the remnants of a colossal collision between two ice-rich precursor moons that shattered approximately a few hundred million years ago.One key finding of the research, conducted using the COSMA supercomputer at Durham University, is that the impact of icy moons likely resulted in the formation of Saturn’s icy rings. When these precursor moons collided, the rock within their cores was scattered less widely than the surrounding ice, leading to the creation of ice-rich rings.This theory aligns with the observed purity of Saturn’s rings, which are made up almost entirely of ice and have accumulated minimal dust pollution since their formation.The simulations explored nearly 200 different scenarios of moon collisions, revealing a wide range of outcomes that could have scattered the right amount of ice into Saturn’s Roche limit. The Roche limit represents the outer boundary where a planet’s gravitational force can disintegrate larger bodies of rock or ice. Material orbiting beyond this limit could have clumped together to form some of Saturn’s current moons.Beyond PoliticsRare Blue Supermoon to Appear This Week With Special Appearance From Saturn30 August, 00:46 GMTThis groundbreaking research challenges previous explanations for the composition of Saturn’s rings, as alternative theories failed to account for the near absence of rock within the rings. By using supercomputer simulations, scientists have gained invaluable insights into the history of Saturn’s system, highlighting the dynamic nature of our solar system’s evolution.Dr. Vincent Eke of Durham University remarked on the findings, emphasizing how the collision hypothesis provides a natural explanation for the ice-rich nature of Saturn’s rings. Meanwhile, Dr. Jacob Kegerreis, a NASA research scientist and Durham University graduate, expressed excitement about using simulations to explore the Saturn system’s evolution further, including its potentially habitable moons.”The apparent geological youth of Saturn’s rings has been a puzzle since the Voyager probes sent back their first images of the planet. This collaboration has allowed us to examine the possible circumstances of their creation, with fascinating results,” noyes Dr. Luis Teodoro of the University of Glasgow.The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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