December 13, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Stretching Saturn’s Rings in Time

Imagining young rings forming recently has been an embarrassment since Voyager days. A new paper by ringmaster Larry Esposito (U of Colorado) found a way to stretch them out into billions of years. The Cassini press release describes clumpy material dividing and re-forming endlessly. Finding more mass in the B-ring also helped explain the brightness of the rings for longer times: there’s more ice to dilute the incoming pollution.

“We have discovered that the rings probably were not created just yesterday in cosmic time, and in this scenario, it is not just luck that we are seeing planetary rings now,” said Esposito.  “They probably were always around but continually changing, and they will be around for many billions of years.”

It’s doubtful the Cassini crew will wait that long to find out. This story was picked up by PhysOrg, the BBC News, National Geographic and On December 17, Astronomy Picture of the Day reported the claim alongside a dazzling picture of the rings.

What did Esposito do, invent a perpetual motion machine? What did he do with gas drag, sputtering, micrometeoroid impacts, collisional spreading and sunlight pressure? These factors are not going to care whether fluffy clumps of ice can recycle themselves. Apparently the ringmaster is also a magician; he made these problems just disappear. When the paper comes out maybe we can find the secret pockets. For most viewers, distraction is usually an effective method.

It’s not that this new model lacks evidential support; there does appear to be clumpiness, and mass estimates have been revised upward by Cassini. But it only accounts for more time for the B-ring, not the other rings which are more tenuous and even younger – including the rings of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. So the problem did not go away with this announcement, despite the celebrating by the science news yahoos who never heard an old age they didn’t like.

What’s driving this urge for age? Simple: Charlie needs the time. That sets the paradigm throughout science. The ringmasters have been embarrassed for 23 years since Voyager forced them to consider the rings might be young. When a phenomenon doesn’t cooperate, it must be forced into conformity; second law of thermodynamics be damned.

(Visited 42 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply