NASA Reveals Saturn Is Losing Its Rings At Maximum Estimated Rate

Cosmic countdown Days are numbered for Saturn’s iconic rings says NASA

Scientists aren't completely certain if Saturn was born with its handsome halo, or if it acquired its ring system later in life.

"The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field", says NASA.

Combining these with observations from Cassini, in which it analysed the material falling from Saturn's rings down to the planet, has allowed astronomers to calculate exactly how fast the rings are disintegrating.

Saturn's distinctive rings may disappear sooner than expected.

"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. "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".

And although 100 million years might sounds like a long way off, the time span is comparatively short compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years. When the equilibrium is comprised, gravity pulls the particles into its upper atmosphere along the planet's invisible magnetic field lines.

Once there, the icy ring particles vaporize and the water can react chemically with Saturn's ionosphere.

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Scientists first documented ring rain back in 2013, but new research, led by James O'Donoghue from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shows the effect is happening much quicker than expected, and by outcome, so is the rate at which Saturn's rings are decaying.

'Something dramatic must have happened around Saturn to make them this large, long after the planet itself formed'.

This means the rings are disappearing at an "alarming speed" - and could be gone within 100 million years.

Aside from determining the lifespan of the planetary rings, the latest findings allowed researchers to make an assumption on when Saturn's rings were formed. "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them".

Neptune is also thought to have very young rings, but there's a big question mark standing over Jupiter. The rings are made of billions of particles of ice and rock, some boulder-sized, but others microscopically tiny.

As seen in the instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii, United States, the ion glows under infrared light if the rain is light. "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". Saturn takes 29.4-years to complete an orbit and experiencing various level of sun's radiation during that turn.

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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