Since the 17th century, astronomers have tried determining the age of Saturn's moons, with the prevailing belief that they are of the same age as the rest of the solar system or roughly 4.5 billion years.
Now, new findings challenge that notion, saying that the moons of the giant planet may have formed only about 100 million years ago — or 130 million years after dinosaurs first roamed Earth.
An analysis of Saturn's rings and satellites, detailed in The Astrophysical Journal, pointed to geysers on the moon Enceladus to arrive at this conclusion.
According to SETI Institute principal investigator Matija Cuk, moons inevitably always change their orbits, an act that could lend insight on their age and history. But it allows them to employ computer simulations to tease out the inner moons' history, says Cuk, who along with his colleagues at SETI used data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft to know the birth of Saturn's moons.
The assumptions here are that the energy powering the ice geysers directly emanate from tidal interactions. Enceladus' geothermal activity level, too, is right about constant, and then the planetary tides remain quite strong.
The analysis showed that these would move Enceladus by the small amount indicated by computer simulations in only about 100 million years. This would peg the formation of Saturn's major moons — except the more distant Titan and Iapetus — to the relatively recent Cretaceous period, or the age of the dinosaurs.
What then probably led to the recent rise of Saturn's inner moons?
They guessed that Saturn maintained a similar moon collection previously, but their orbits were shaken by a different type of orbital resonance that involved planetary motion around the sun.
"Eventually, the orbits of neighboring moons crossed, and these objects collided," Cuk explains, citing how the present moons as well as the rings of Saturn formed from the rubble.
Saturn boasts of a complex system of at least 62 moons apart from its famous rings, proving to be the busiest planetary system in our solar system. Titan is its largest and most popular moon, sheathed in unique hydrocarbon seas.
Its inner moons, however, are not ones to be forgotten — Enceladus, although much smaller, has been found to have geysers at the southern pole, blasting water from the interior into the wonderful outer space. Scientists have since speculated whether there could be life in Enceladus' warm interior oceans.
If these results are proven correct, the bright rings that Saturn features today would break assumptions that they are primordial and established that they are indeed younger than heydays of Earth's dinosaurs, giving humans a visual spectacle today.