WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
"Saturn was an accomplice and that produced the rings," said study author Robin Canup, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
The mystery of Saturn's rings "has puzzled people for centuries," said Cornell astronomer Joe Burns, who wasn't involved in the study and said Canup's new theory makes sense.
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 that 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.
Something had to have stripped away the outer ice of a moon, a big moon, Canup said.
So her theory starts billions of years ago when the planets' moons were forming. A large disk of hydrogen gas circled Saturn. Large inner moons probably made regular plunges into the planet, pulled by the gas.
These death spirals took about 10,000 years and the key to understanding the rings' origins is what happened to them during that time. According to Canup's computer model, Saturn stripped the ice away from a huge moon while it was far enough from the planet that the ice would be trapped in a ring.