Saturn's Rings May Disappear Within 100M Years

Artist's impression of how Saturn could look in the next 100 million years. NASA  Cassini  James O'Donoghue

Artist's impression of how Saturn could look in the next 100 million years. NASA Cassini James O'Donoghue

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

"We estimate that this "ring rain" drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-size swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour", lead author James O'Donoghue, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

The rate that water ice is falling onto Saturn means that eventually the rings will run out of material and disappear altogether.

Saturn's moon Enceladus drifts before the rings and the tiny moon Pandora in this view that NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured on November 1, 2009. '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. Some suggest it was formed around 4 billion years ago - at the same time as the planet and the rest of the solar system - but others suggest they surrounded the planet many years after the solar system's birth. A recent paper suggests that a whopping 22,000 pounds of material falls from the rings every single second, and over time that rain will bleed the rings completely dry.

Earlier this year, the team took a close look at measurements of a charged molecule found in the upper reaches of Saturn's yellowish atmosphere, using the Keck II Telescope in Hawaii in 2011.

Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the USA 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.

The rings are depositing so much ice on to the planet that they will essentially destroy themselves. But prior to that, scientists had thought that the rings were perhaps only 100 million years old, possibly created by a collision between a moon and a comet, or between Saturn's moons (it has many), which resulted in debris captured in rings by the planet's gravity.

Saturn's iconic rings are made up of mostly frozen water which is actually getting pushed onto the planet's surface. "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them".

There are a number of theories which could explain the origin of the rings. The fact is that Saturn is rapidly heading towards another ring-free phase of its life, and that's pretty wild.

The icy dust then rains into Saturn before disintegrating.

Saturn has been observed by a team at NASA who have been using the Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea in the US state of Hawaii. This is where Saturn's magnetic field intersects the orbit of Enceladus, a geologically active moon that is shooting geysers of water ice into space, indicating that some of those particles are raining onto Saturn as well.

As for the ionosphere changes, those are also tied to the ring rain.

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