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Sunday, December 12, 2010
Saturn's rings: Leftovers from a cosmic murder?
Image provided by NASA, taken Oct. 6, 2004, by the Cassini Saturn Probe, shows the planet Saturn and its rings.
One of the solar system's most evocative mysteries _ the origin of Saturn's rings _ may be a case of cosmic murder, new research suggests.
The victim: an unnamed moon of Saturn that disappeared about 4.5 billion years ago.
The suspect: a disk of hydrogen gas that once surrounded Saturn when its dozens of moons were forming, but has now fled the crime scene.
The cause of death: A forced plunge into Saturn.
And those spectacular and colorful rings are the only evidence left. As the doomed moon made its death spiral, Saturn robbed its outer layer of ice, which then formed rings, according to a new theory published online Sunday in the journal Nature.
One of the leading theories has been that either some of Saturn's many moons crashed into each other, or an asteroid crashed into some of them _ leaving debris that formed the rings.
The trouble is Saturn's moons are half ice and half rock and the planet's seven rings are now as much as 95 percent ice and probably used to be all ice, Canup said. If the rings were formed by a moon-on-moon crash or an asteroid-on-moon, there would be more rocks in the rings.
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