NASA Research Reveals that Saturn might lose its rings much sooner than expected

Saturn is known and recognised by its iconic rings. They’re the biggest, brightest rings in our solar system. Extending over 280,000 km from the planet; wide enough to fit 6 Earths in a row. But Saturn won’t always look this way. Because its rings are disappearing. Scientists believe they could disappear in less than a 100 million years — which isn’t all that long when you consider that the gas giant itself is more than 4 billion years old.

A 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.” “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 in the US. He is the lead author of the study published in the journal Icarus. “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,” he added.

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“That wasn’t a complete surprise,” said Jack Connerney, who proposed in 1986 that electrically charged ring particles were flowing down magnetic field lines into Saturn’s atmosphere. “We identified Enceladus and the E-ring as a copious source of water as well, based on another narrow dark band in that old Voyager image.”

Scientists have long wondered if Saturn was formed with the rings or if the planet acquired them later in life. The new research favours the latter scenario, indicating that they are unlikely to be older than 100 million years, as it would take that long for the C-ring to become what it is today assuming it was once as dense as the B-ring. “We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime. 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,” O’Donoghue said. Various theories have been proposed for the ring’s origin. If the planet got them later in life, the rings could have formed when small, icy moons in orbit around Saturn collided, perhaps because their orbits were perturbed by a gravitational tug from a passing asteroid or comet.

 

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