Only Diamonds Are Forever: Saturn Is Losing Its Rings, Says NASA

Only Diamonds Are Forever: Saturn Is Losing Its Rings, Says NASA

New research from NASA shows that the rings, made predominantly of water ice, are being pulled apart by the planet's gravity and onto Saturn's surface as deluges of "ring rain".

The planet's magnetic field is causing the rings to be pulled inward by gravity, creating a dusty rain of ice particles.

Estimates suggest that the rings are draining water at such a rate that the volume could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 30 minutes. Combining this analysis with data collected by the departed Cassini spacecraft, which dove through the rings before plunging into Saturn last year, O'Donoghue predicts that the rings have less than 100 million years to live.

Saturn's rings- which are only about 10 metres thick- are made up predominately of chunks of water ice which range in size from microscopic grains to boulders. Though Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are also banded, Saturn's adornment is by far the most impressive in the solar system.

Saturn is about 900 million miles from the sun, which is almost 10 times as far as our own distance from the star. That specific form of hydrogen makes up "ring rain", a phenomenon scientists have been working to pin down for decades.

This means the rings are disappearing at an "alarming speed" - and could be gone within 100 million years. Thankfully, humans have telescopes at a time when Saturn does have its glorious rings, so I suppose we're fortunate for that.

Various theories have been proposed for the origin of Saturn's rings.

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Saturn may be best recognized for its rings, but NASA says that the planet's unique features may soon be disappearing. If it's the former, the rings formed about 4.4 billion years ago, but if it's the latter, they only formed about 100 million years ago, likely the outcome of colliding moons in orbit around Saturn, according to research published in 2016. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years. It is possible, in the age of the dinosaurs, that Saturn's rings were even larger and brighter than we see them today.

From Earth, Saturn's rings look like a halo, homogeneous and geometrically flawless.

Ring rains react with Saturn's ionosphere to increase the longevity of charged particles called trihydrogen cation, H3 ions. The probe observed ring particles moving quickly into Saturn's equator. Rather than forming along with the planet, billions of years ago, they most likely came from some process, such as a collision or a large icy moon straying too close to the planet, that happened, at most, around 100 million years ago.

The influx of water from the rings washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark and producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.

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. They inferred that Saturn was not formed with its rings intact; rather, the planet acquired it later.

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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