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New Evidence For Saturn’s Age, Thanks To Hydrogen

The first experimental application of an old theory could give scientists a better idea of how old Saturn really is.
Posted at 11:56 AM, Jun 27, 2015

New tests on the lowly hydrogen molecule appear to confirm some old theories about the gas and could have big implications for one of our biggest planets. Brace for some science.

An 80-year-old theory first floated by physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington suggests that when you put a lattice of hydrogen molecules under enough pressure, the gas starts behaving like a metal. It breaks into individual hydrogen atoms and releases electrons that can carry a current.

Researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory just obtained the first experimental evidence for the phenomenon. They used their high-energy x-ray generator to to magnetically compress hydrogen without heating it up, and it did just what Wigner and Huntington thought it would. (Video via Sandia National Laboratory)

The researchers say this could patch a hole in what we know about Saturn — specifically, its age. One of our existing computerized models determines the age of Jovian planets based on the radiation and heat they emit. As they age, they get cooler.

It pegs Jupiter at 4.5 billion years old — right in line with most theories of planetary formation. But the same model indicates Saturn is only 2.5 billion years old.

One possible explanation — supported by Sandia’s new findings — is rain. Six years ago, researchers suggested metallic hydrogen helped condense the helium in Saturn’s atmosphere into rain.

This process warms the planet and could account for why the computer models are coming up two billion years short.

To be clear, scientific consensus still puts Saturn at 4.5 billion years old or so, and Sandia researchers says it will take time to work the laboratory’s new hydrogen evidence into planetary age models.

In the meantime, they’ve published their findings in the journal Science.

This video includes images from NASA and The Nobel Foundation. Music by Nicholas Cheung / CC BY NC SA 3.0.