International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What caused the tilt to Saturn’s rotation axis?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Saturn's tilt

Mains level : NA

The tilt of the rotation axis of the gas giant Saturn may in fact be caused by its moons, space scientists have reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

About Saturn

  • Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter.
  • It is a gas giant with an average radius of about nine times that of Earth.
  • It only has one-eighth the average density of Earth; however, with its larger volume, Saturn is over 95 times more massive.

Reasons for Saturn’s tilt

  • Saturn’s axis interacted with the path of the planet Neptune and gradually tilted until it reached the inclination of 27 degrees observed today.
  • This current tilt of Saturn’s rotation axis is caused by the migration of its satellites, and especially by that of its largest moon, Titan.
  • Recent observations have shown that Titan and the other moons are gradually moving away from Saturn much faster than astronomers had previously estimated.
  • By incorporating this increased migration rate into their calculations, the researchers concluded that this process affects the inclination of Saturn’s rotation axis.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which phenomenon has Venusian winds rotating 60 times faster than the planet below on the dark side?

(a) Super rotation

(b) Monrotation

(c) Dual rotation

(d) Macrrotation

Continuous tilting

  • As its satellites move further away, the planet tilts more and more.
  • In fact, Saturn’s axis is still tilting, and what we see today is merely a transitional stage in this shift.
  • Over the next few billion years, the inclination of Saturn’s axis could more than double.

Why it matters?

  • The decisive event that tilted Saturn is thought to have occurred relatively recently.
  • For over three billion years after its formation, Saturn’s rotation axis remained only slightly tilted.
  • It was only roughly a billion years ago that the gradual motion of its satellites triggered a resonance phenomenon that continues today.

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