The mystery of Saturn's rings — our solar system's most famous feature and the subject of millions of kids' drawings — may have finally been solved, according to a team of Japanese scientists.
Since the rings of Saturn were first spotted in the 17th century, studying the feature has moved from earth-based telescopes to spacecraft such as Voyager and Cassini. However, the origin of the rings remained unclear.
Now, scientists also have computers to simulate what the solar system looked like eons ago.
Some four billion years ago, as the solar system was forming, objects about one-fifth the size of Earth wandered near the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). This period of time is known as the "Late Heavy Bombardment" by astronomers.
Using a computer simulation, scientists theorized these objects were destroyed by the planets' tidal forces and their fragments were then captured into orbits around the planets, the study said.
Then, repeated collisions between the fragments caused them to break down further, and as their orbits became gradually more circular, the current rings formed.
The researchers said the rings of giant planets like Saturn are natural by-products of how planets formed in our solar system. This implies such planets discovered around other stars likely contain rings formed by a similar process.
Rings around an exoplanet (a planet outside the solar system) have been recently reported, and further discoveries of rings, moons and other objects around exoplanets will advance our understanding of their origin, the scientists said.
The study was conducted by researchers at Kobe University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan and appeared in the journal Icarus.
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