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Saturn's Rings Are One Giant Optical Illusion

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Saturn's Rings Are One Giant Optical Illusion

The seventh planet from the center of our solar system has been playing a trick on scientists for centuries.

If you’ve ever looked at a picture or rendition of Saturn, you might have noticed that its rings were various sizes. Since the discovery of the planet, astronomers have thought Saturn’s various “halos,” comprised of small particles made up of water ice and traces of rocky material, range in size from micrometers to meters.

The bright and opaque sections of the universe’s most extensive planetary ring system were understood to be the largest while the more transparent parts were sparser. This belief carried through time until recently, when researchers uncovered a surprising fact based on the weight of the rings. After coming up with a formula to measure the spiral density waves captured during NASA’s Cassini mission inside the ring, the scientists converted the data to weights. From there they discovered that despite the various appearances of Saturn’s rings, their individual weights were all essentially the same.

Researchers are pointing to our previous understanding of Saturn’s rings being a direct result of an optical illusion. Though they aren’t quite sure how that “illusion” works, they are now able to more accurately address the age of Saturn’s rings, which were previously based on their size. Our understanding of the planet’s ring age could be revised from billions of years old to only a couple hundred million years.

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