Be it stars in a binary system ablaze with each other for their remaining time, or twin supernovae withering away in each other’s arms in true Romeo-and-Juliet fashion, there’s always an aspect of scintillating romance in the way cosmic bodies weave their stories. Our latest romantic tragedy comes from scientists speculating that Saturn’s most defining feature may actually have arisen from the heartbreaking tragedy that befell one of its lunar satellites.
As many keen-eyed people may have noticed, most depictions of Saturn tilt the giant slightly, even in the vastness of space where little distinction is made between up, down, left, and right. And that’s actually intentional! Saturn rotates at an angle of 26.7° on its plane of rotation around the Sun, forever making it look like it’s respectfully tipping its hat to our star.
This kerning is a mystery that scientists have been trying to unravel for decades. Some speculate that this may be due to its interaction with Neptune, which is also tilting nearly the same angle. But physics is notorious for throwing tantrums when complete order and equilibrium are not present, confusing scientists as they try to determine the reason for that “almost”.
And now MIT astronomers may have a tearful answer! They believe that Saturn and Neptune were once more than just friends of the solar system; They may indeed have rotated in full tilt resonance as they danced around our sun. The unique system of cosmic satellites around these planets likely helped balance the gravitational forces for this romance to take hold.
But perhaps all was not as good as it seemed, and one of Saturn’s largest moons — what astronomers now call “Chrysalis” (after the shell a butterfly sheds after transition) — fell under the heavy burden of preserving that of its parents , in frenzy marriage, and crashed into the planet.
Chrysalis would be roughly the same size as Iapetus, Saturn’s third largest moon. Roughly 100 to 200 million years ago, the frenzied satellite must have had a series of excruciatingly close encounters with cousin moons Iapetus and Titan before venturing so close to the mother planet that its gravity ripped it to pieces. While most of it was absorbed by the icy jumbo, some of it likely flew out, and Saturn adorned it like a cloak in stoic memory, giving it its iconic appearance.
Perhaps this loss was too much for the gas giant and drove Neptune away forever as a result of the collision. Scientists suspect that this may have led to the different inclinations between the planets. This also explains why Saturn’s rings are much younger than the planet itself, another mystery that has baffled many researchers.
“It’s a pretty good story, but like any other finding, it needs to be investigated by others,” says Jack Wisdom, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT. “But it seems this lost satellite was just a puppet waiting to experience its instability.”
We don’t know exactly what turmoil drove Chrysalis to the brink of hysteria. But we do know that if this theory is true, Saturn loved his lost 84th child so much that he decided to put a ring on himself.
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