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Creation 33(3):44–46, July 2011

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Young Saturn


Credit: NASASaturn

In his symphonic suite The Planets, Gustav Holst titled the 5th movement “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. In human terms, a few thousand years would be pretty old, but secular scientists claim the planet is much older—about 4.5 billion years. Cassini, the spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, is making that age hard to believe. Independent lines of evidence argue for a much younger age.

Cassini-Huygens1 is the most advanced outer-planet spacecraft ever launched. In the 14 years I worked on the mission, I had opportunity to hear firsthand the struggles the world’s leading planetary scientists were having trying to keep Saturn old. I heard the predictions before launch, and I monitored the realities as torrents of data came in from Saturn, its moons and rings. Here is a short list of phenomena that put strong upper limits on the age of the Saturn system.

Enceladus. As reported in the June 2009 issue of this magazine, Enceladus emerged in 2005 as a serious challenge to old-age claims. This little moon, about the diameter of Arizona, was erupting water ice, dust and gas out of its south pole in powerful geysers. In March 2011, the problem got more and more difficult for long-agers: the heat emitted from Enceladus was measured at 15.8 gigawatts—ten times higher than earlier estimates.2 Papers in 2007 and 2008 admitted there is no known combination of factors that can keep this activity going for billions of years.3 The eruptions on Enceladus are indeed fountains of youth.

Main Rings. Saturn’s rings are not the placid, smooth raceways they appear to be. They are dynamic! The rings are constantly being bombarded by the solar wind, sunlight pressure, gas drag, internal collisions and micrometeorites. Scientists have even heard ‘ring tones’ in radio frequencies coming from meteorite impacts,4 and the visible ‘spokes’ may be their signatures. Yet the ice is remarkably clean compared to the predicted contamination from billions of years of micrometeorite pollution.5 And scientists recently found the trail of a billion-ton comet that must have hit the rings in the 1980s.6 How rare was that?

Scientists have struggled to keep the rings old by suggesting that the ice gets recycled somehow, or that the rings are more massive than they appear (this only prolongs the life of the B ring, the densest one).7 Most ring scientists, however, are resigned to the fact that the rings look young.5,7 To maintain their faith in billions of years, some propose that the rings formed long after Saturn by some lucky accident.8 Such an ad hoc explanation would require highly implausible conditions.

Faint Rings. In addition to the visible rings, Saturn has 1) a tenuous F ring continually plowed by Prometheus, one of the shepherd moons, 2) some fragile arcs in the G ring,9 3) a newly-discovered Phoebe ring orbiting Saturn backwards10 and 4) the tenuous E ring, created by the 10% of particles that escape Enceladus.11 On approach to Saturn, an ‘explosion’ in the E ring was detected (probably from Enceladus),12 dissipating as much mass as all the ring’s micron-sized particles combined in just four months.13 How often does this occur? If not rare, it represents a dynamic, destructive process. None of these delicate rings seem likely to persist for even a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the main rings—and the main rings already look young.

Saturn. Saturn has incredibly strong lightning storms, aurorae, a phenomenal vortex at its south pole that could almost swallow Earth,14 and a bizarre hexagon-shaped pattern of clouds at the north pole.15 Saturn’s magnetic field, furthermore, defies evolutionary dynamo theories by aligning nearly perfectly with its spin axis. The magnetosphere was even found to be loaded with charged particles from the Enceladus geysers, which in turn affects the field’s rotation.16 It’s remarkable that such a tiny moon has produced a measurable affect on a planet with 5 million times more mass—talk about the tail wagging the dog!

Iapetus. The Texas-sized moon Iapetus is as black as charcoal on its leading hemisphere, and as white as snow on the trailing side. This difference in brightness (albedo), noted by discoverer Jean-Dominique Cassini in 1672, left Voyager scientists still mystified in 1981. The mystery was finally solved by the Cassini mission, but what a solution! Close-encounter photos taken in September 2007 showed that the dark material almost certainly came from outside the moon; but even more astonishing, there’s a runaway migration of bright carbon dioxide ice due to heat absorbed by the dark material around it. This irreversible process causes the carbon dioxide ‘dry ice’ to sublimate and ‘hop’ to the trailing side and from pole to pole.17 About 12% of the migrating ice is lost to space each 29.5-year Saturnian orbit.18 Even if Iapetus started with a layer five kilometres (three miles) thick, it would be gone in just a third of the assumed 4.5 billion-year age of the solar system.

Another puzzle on Iapetus is a mountain range circling most of the equator that rises, at some points, 19 km (12 miles) above the surrounding plains. Trying to explain that in evolutionary terms requires an improbably rapid spin-down of Iapetus,19 or maybe a ring that collapsed. Rhea, a similar-size moon, shows scars on its equator that might be from ring collapse,20 but nothing as massive as the mountains on Iapetus.

Titan atmosphere. Like Earth, Saturn’s moon Titan has a largely nitrogen atmosphere, but unlike Earth, it has a large component of methane (what we call ‘natural gas’ on Earth). This methane provides Titan with a ‘space blanket’ that keeps the nitrogen in a gaseous form. But the methane in Titan’s atmosphere is irreversibly lost to space and to the surface. Since Voyager, atmospheric scientists have known that the solar wind is eroding the methane, converting it to hazes and other compounds that cannot change back to methane. When that erosion depletes the methane to a critical level, the entire nitrogen atmosphere should freeze out and collapse onto the surface catastrophically. Clearly, this has not happened. Atmospheric scientists have given Titan’s methane an upper age limit of 10 million years.21

David Coppedge

Titan surface. The solar wind ionizes atmospheric methane, causing it to recombine into other hydrocarbons, primarily ethane (C2 H6). The ethane, which is liquid at Titan temperatures, should have rained down and accumulated over 4.5 billion years into a global ocean several kilometres thick, according to calculations made in the 1980s.22 The Huygens probe, however, landed in January 2005 with a thud on a moist lakebed. The historic landing provided ‘ground truth’ that the old-age predictions were wrong.

The project orbiter and lander found Titan girdled with dunes of dirty ice particles, riddled with river channels, but only scarred with half a dozen craters—astonishing for a large moon. Lakes were found in the north and south polar regions, but the largest one in the south was recently caught evaporating quickly, now that Saturn is moving from equinox to solstice.23 Cloudbursts of methane witnessed last year show weather cycles that have not left evidence of billions of years of hydrocarbon deposits.

These and other evidences put strong upper limits on the age of the Saturn system. Many of them top out at 100 million years, 10 million years, or less. That does not mean that Saturn is that old—it could be much younger, including the biblical timescale of thousands of years. To illustrate the problem for evolutionists, sometimes at presentations I have an assistant help me stretch out a 45-foot rope in front of the audience. If the rope represents the 4.5 billion year age of the solar system 100 million years is just one foot on that rope. What happened to the other 44 feet on the timeline? Did it even exist?

Bible-believers cannot prove from this evidence that Saturn fits within a Genesis timeframe, but consider: falsifying the 4.5 billion year age has the effect of simultaneously falsifying Darwinian evolution and the ‘geological timescale’. And with that comes a whole new set of questions—questions best addressed by the position of intelligent design, and best answered by the Word of the Creator Himself.

Posted on homepage: 29 October 2012

References and notes

  1. This spacecraft is made up of the NASA-designed Cassini orbiter, and the Huygens probe, by the European Space Agency. Return to text.
  2. JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Release), 3 March 2011, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20110307; Creation-Evolution Headlines (CEH), 7 March 2011, creationsafaris.com/crev201103.htm#20110307b. Return to text.
  3. Icarus 187(2):569–570, 2007; www.space.com/5528-frigid-future-ocean-saturn-moon.html, 19 June 2008; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200806.htm#20080619a. Return to text.
  4. NASA Space Telescope discovers largest ring around Saturn, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/, 6 October 2009. Return to text.
  5. JPL 12 December 2007, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20071212, CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200712.htm#20071213a, 13 December 2007. Return to text.
  6. JPL image caption 31 March 2011, photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA12820. Return to text.
  7. Cuzzi et al., An evolving view of Saturn’s dynamic rings, Science 327(5972):1470–1475, 2010; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev201003.htm#20100319a, 19 March 2010. Return to text.
  8. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20101212, 12 December 2010. Return to text.
  9. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20080905, 5 September 2008. Return to text.
  10. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20091006/, 6 October 2009; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200910.htm#20091007a, 7 October 2009. Return to text.
  11. JPL news, www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/features.cfm?feature=1597, 7 February 2008. Return to text.
  12. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/cassinifeatures/feature20060629, 29 June 2006; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200607.htm#20060711a. Return to text.
  13. Science Daily, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041219140119.htm, 31 December 2004; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200407.htm#solsys122, 2 July 2004. Return to text.
  14. www.space.com/5183-saturn-storm-hurricane-features.html, 27 March 2008. Return to text.
  15. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20091209, 9 December 2009. Return to text.
  16. JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/20081215enceladusactivity, 15 December 2008. Return to text.
  17. Southwest Research Institute News, www.swri.org/9what/releases/2009/Iapetus.htm 10 December 2009; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200912.htm#20091214a, 14 December 2009. Return to text.
  18. Palmer, E.E. and Brown, R.H., The stability and transport of carbon dioxide on Iapetus, Icarus 195(1):434–446, 2008; CEH, 5 May 2008, creationsafaris.com/crev200805.htm#20080505a. Return to text.
  19. Kerr, R.A., Planetary science: how Saturn’s icy moons get a (geologic) life, Science 311(5757):29, 2006; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200602.htm#20060206a, 6 February 2006; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200603.htm#20060301a, 1 March 2006. Return to text.
  20. Paul Schenk’s blog entry for 25 February 2010, stereomoons.blogspot.com/2010/02/rheas-blue-streaks-rings-and-other.html; JPL, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20101007 7 October 2010; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev201010.htm#20101020b 20 October 2010. Return to text.
  21. Space Science Institute press release, Feb 2009, ciclops.org/view/5471/cassini_finds_hydrocarbon_rains_may_fill_titan_lakes; personal communication with Dr. Sushil Atreya, 2001; Atreya’s paper: Titan’s Methane Cycle, Planetary and Space Science 54:1177–1187, 2006. See also Passage to a Ringed World (NASA SP-533, 1997, p. 33); CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev200902.htm#20090202a, 2 February 2009. Return to text.
  22. The New Solar System, 4th ed., Cambridge Press, 1999, p. 282. Return to text.
  23. Turtle et al., Shoreline retreat at Titan’s Ontario Lacus and Arrakis Planitia from Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem Observations, Icarus, S0019-1035(11)00054-6, 2011; CEH, creationsafaris.com/crev201102.htm#20110219a 19 February 2011. Return to text.