Saturn’s Rings Are Disappearing, Study Reveals

Posted: Dec 23 2018, 1:54am CST | by , Updated: Dec 23 2018, 1:58am CST, in Latest Science News


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Saturn’s Rings are Disappearing, Study Reveals
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The planet could lose its iconic rings in 100 million to 300 million years.

New NASA research confirms that Saturn is losing its iconic rings at an alarming rate. Saturn’s rings, which are mostly made up of water ice, are being pulled into the planet by gravity. The downpour of charged water particles that astronomers call ring rain is falling directly from Saturn's rings into its upper atmosphere under the influence of magnetic field. The process is happening so fast the rings could disappear in less than 100 million years. That’s much faster than maximum rate estimated from Voyager spacecrafts’ observations decades ago.

“We estimate that this 'ring rain' drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour," said James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, but add to this the Cassini-spacecraft measured ring-material detected falling into Saturn's equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live. This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years."

The rings of Saturn that swirl along Saturn's equatorial plane were first spotted in 1610 by Galileo Galilei. But detailed study of these unique structures only became possible in the 20th century. In the early 1980s, images from NASA's Voyager spacecraft showed significant interaction between Saturn’s atmosphere and its ring system. The mission also revealed changes in Saturn's upper atmosphere, density variations in the planet’s rings and a trio of narrow dark bands encircling the planet at northern mid-latitudes. Based on that data, researchers theorized that water could have been flowing down into those three dark bands from the rings.

Later, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere in Sept. 15, represented a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system, especially its mysterious rings.

"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime,” said O'Donoghue. “However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today!"

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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