NASA discovers Saturn is losing its rings

NASA discovers Saturn is losing its rings

Their origins remain controversial, but now they are disappearing.

These seemingly unrelated observations led to the theory that the electrically charged particles from Saturn's rings were flowing down along magnetic field lines - a process that resulted in water being dumped from its rings onto its ionosphere, creating the narrow bands seen in the Voyager images.

"What we're seeing is something on the order of about a ton and a half per second", said James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, who reported the conclusions Monday in the journal Icarus.

NASA's estimates of the amount of material present in the rings, combined with data on how much of it is falling, points to the rings being completely gone within 300 million years. Thankfully, humans have telescopes at a time when Saturn does have its glorious rings, so I suppose we're fortunate for that.

This video explores how Saturn is losing its rings at a rapid rate in geologic timescales and what that reveals about the planet's history.

The study indicates the rings were formed around the planet less than 100 million years ago, whereas previous research indicated they were some four billion years old. 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. While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn's appear to be more majestic.

Saturn is Losing its Rings at Worst Case Scenario Rate

Growing up, learning the planets, Saturn and its rings always seemed like the coolest planet, the most fashion-forward of the bunch.

NASA says that makes them a new feature of the planet and they won't last long, again on a cosmic scale.

According to the findings of the new research, it is now considered to be more likely that it acquired the rings after it formed.

As you may remember from science class or The Magic School Bus, the rings of Saturn are mostly made up of chunks of water ice, ranging from "microscopic dust grains to boulders several yards (meters) across". 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. "In some parts of the rings, once charged, the balance of forces on these tiny particles changes dramatically, and Saturn's gravity pulls them in along the magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere".

Before Cassini took a fiery, fatal plunge into Saturn in September 2017, it completed a daring series of loops between the planet and its rings. The researchers also made the surprising discovery of a glowing band at a higher latitude in the planets southern hemisphere. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. This view looks toward the night side on Pandora as well, which is lit by dim golden light reflected from Saturn. During its 29.4-year orbit, its rings are exposed to the sun to varying degrees.

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