Saturn’s rings and tilt might have come from one missing moon

The hypothesis could explain some things about the planet once thought to be unrelated

Saturn from an angle of roughly 45 degrees from the plane defined by its rings. The sunlight casts a shadow of the planet across its rings.

Saturn’s iconic rings are a mystery. So is its tilted orbit. A single missing moon could explain both.

Space Science Institute, JPL-Caltech/NASA

A single, doomed moon could clear up a couple of mysteries about Saturn.

This hypothetical missing moon, dubbed Chrysalis, could have helped tilt Saturn over, researchers suggest September 15 in Science. The ensuing orbital chaos might then have led to the moon’s demise, shredding it to form the iconic rings that encircle the planet today.

“We like it because it’s a scenario that explains two or three different things that were previously not thought to be related,” says study coauthor Jack Wisdom, a planetary scientist at MIT. “The rings are related to the tilt, who would ever have guessed that?”

Saturn’s rings appear surprisingly young, a mere 150 million years or so old (SN: 12/14/17). If the dinosaurs had telescopes, they might have seen a ringless Saturn.  Another mysterious feature of the gas giant is its nearly 27-degree tilt relative to its orbit around the sun. That tilt is too large to have formed when Saturn did or to be the result of collisions knocking the planet over.

Planetary scientists have long suspected that the tilt is related to Neptune, because of a coincidence in timing between the way the two planets move. Saturn’s axis wobbles, or precesses, like a spinning top. Neptune’s entire orbit around the sun also wobbles, like a struggling hula hoop.

The periods of both precessions are almost the same, a phenomenon known as resonance. Scientists theorized that gravity from Saturn’s moons — especially the largest moon, Titan — helped the planetary precessions line up. But some features of Saturn’s internal structure were not known well enough to prove that the two timings were related.

Wisdom and colleagues used precision measurements of Saturn’s gravitational field from the Cassini spacecraft, which plunged into Saturn in 2017 after 13 years orbiting the gas giant, to figure out the details of its internal structure (SN: 9/15/17). Specifically, the team worked out Saturn’s moment of inertia, a measure of how much force is needed to tip the planet over. The team found that the moment of inertia is close to, but not exactly, what it would be if Saturn’s spin were in perfect resonance with Neptune’s orbit.

“We argue that it’s so close, it couldn’t have occurred by chance,” Wisdom says. “That’s where this satellite Chrysalis came in.”

After considering a volley of other explanations, Wisdom and colleagues realized that another smallish moon would have helped Titan bring Saturn and Neptune into resonance by adding its own gravitational tugs. Titan drifted away from Saturn until its orbit synced up with that of Chrysalis. The enhanced gravitational kicks from the larger moon sent the doomed smaller moon on a chaotic dance. Eventually, Chrysalis swooped so close to Saturn that it grazed the giant planet’s cloud tops. Saturn ripped the moon apart, and slowly ground its pieces down into the rings.

Calculations and computer simulations showed that the scenario works, though not all the time. Out of 390 simulated scenarios, only 17 ended with Chrysalis disintegrating to create the rings. Then again, massive, striking rings like Saturn’s are rare, too.

The name Chrysalis came from that spectacular ending: “A chrysalis is a cocoon of a butterfly,” Wisdom says. “The satellite Chrysalis was dormant for 4.5 billion years, presumably. Then suddenly the rings of Saturn emerged from it.”

The story hangs together, says planetary scientist Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado Boulder, who was not involved in the new work. But he’s not entirely convinced. “I think it’s all plausible, but maybe not so likely,” he says. “If Sherlock Holmes is solving a case, even the improbable explanation may be the right one. But I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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