Saturn is losing its rings

Cristina Cross
December 20, 2018

Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the U.S. and United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing ring material to rain down onto Saturn at what NASA calls the "worst-case-scenario" rate of the estimates provided by the Voyager data.

According to astronomers, the chunks of ice spinning around the gas planet are being pulled in by gravity under the influence of its magnetic field. A timeline like that means that none of us will actually be around to see Saturn in its future ring-less state, but that's beside the point. Their origins remain controversial, but now they are disappearing.

Based on that current rate, and research carried out by the Cassini spacecraft, the rings have less than 100 million years to live. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

When they come into contact with Saturn's upper atmosphere, these ice particles vaporise, and this influx of water clears the haze, which then shows up as dark bands.

O'Donoghue also suggested that the disintegration of Saturn's rings raises a tantalizing question: has mankind "just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune", planets which today sport mere ringlets.

Saturn's iconic rings will one day be no more.

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"While [the spectrometer] was created to investigate gases, we were able to measure the ring particles because they hit the spacecraft at such high velocities they vaporized", said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer on Cassini's nose and lead author of the study published in the journal Science.

The current working theory is that Saturn acquired its attractive rings later in its lifespan of roughly four billion years and that its (relatively) new-found bling "only" showed up about 100 million years ago. The ring rain that falls into the gas giant is so abundant that the icy bands could disappear in 300 million years, or even sooner.

The latest study indicates that Saturn got its rings less than 100 million years ago, so anyone observing the planet before this would have seen a very different celestial body.

Decades ago, when the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft flew past Saturn, giving us our first close-up look at this unbelievable planet, scientists used the data the probes sent back to discover that the wide rings surrounding it were raining down into the planet's upper atmosphere.

Those spacecraft observed suspicious variations in both the electrical charge in Saturn's ionosphere and the thickness of its rings, as well as dark-colored bands running around the planet at higher latitudes. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. The entire scene is backlit by the Sun, providing striking illumination for the icy particles that make up both the rings and the jets emanating from the south pole of Enceladus, which is about 314 miles (505 km) across. The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too.

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