Saturn is eating away its icy rings

Clark Diaz
December 20, 2018

The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, very slowly followed by the outer rings.

The origins of Saturn's rings have long puzzled scientists, who are still unsure if the planet was formed with the rings or if it acquired them at a later stage. They then became bound to the planet's magnetic field and pulled into Saturn by gravity. The rings could disintegrate and fall into Saturn in as little as 100 million years" time, in a process dubbed "ring rain'.

"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", James O'Donoghue, scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release. That rate, combined with the current mass of Saturn's rings, is what lets scientists calculate that 300-million-year life expectancy, although the large range on the infall calculation means there's quite a bit of uncertainty about the rings' lifetime.

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That's a snap of the fingers in cosmic time, particularly considering Saturn is more than 4 billion years old.

NASA has confirmed that Saturn is losing its rings at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago.

'Something dramatic must have happened around Saturn to make them this large, long after the planet itself formed'. But they are raining so much water onto the planet that in 300 million years they could rain themselves almost out of existence, leaving Saturn startlingly ringless.

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Research has already shown that Saturn's rings are fairly young. The study says that Saturn's rings are set to disappear in 292 million years, considering a continued rate of loss via ring rain. Of course, it's also possible we came along too late: Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have faint and fragmentary ring systems, suggesting that they may once have been as gaudily decorated as Saturn is today-a solar system spectacle that came and went before we ever got a glimpse of it.

The particles that make up the rings are being bombarded by radiation from the Sun and, as the video explains, clouds of plasma from impacts of space rocks.

It ain't St. Louis without the Gateway Arch, it ain't Mount Rushmore without the Presidents, and it sure ain't Saturn without the rings. The influx of water from the rings, appearing at specific latitudes, washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark in reflected light, producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images. For the new study, O'Donoghue used the Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to detect and measure these liquid-on-ionosphere chemical interactions. This view looks toward the night side on Pandora as well, which is lit by dim golden light reflected from Saturn.

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The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association.

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