Saturn's Rings May Disappear Within 100M Years

Pablo Tucker
December 20, 2018

Scientists have long discussed the possible origin of the Saturn ring system, which may have formed from shattered pieces of small moons, comets or asteroids.

The study published on Monday in the journal Icarus has shown that the iconic rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles. Based on their findings, the scientists plotted different rates of loss of the rings, to estimate how long it would before they completely disappeared.

It is hard to imagine a solar system without Saturn's rings, but it turns out they are an ephemeral, if majestic, phenomenon.

According to James O'Donoghue of NASA, the amount of "ring rain" being drained could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 30 minutes.

Leading up to the September 15, 2017 "Grand Finale" of NASA's Cassini spacecraft, when the mission team plunged the probe down into the planet's atmosphere, the spacecraft was sent on a trajectory to slip between the planet and its rings. They later react chemically with the electrically charged part of the ionosphere, Saturn's upper atmosphere.

Scientists had previously found Saturn's rings were losing mass from data sent back from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.

The rings are depositing so much ice on to the planet that they will essentially destroy themselves. New research supports the idea that they formed later in the planet's existence and are unlikely to be more than 100 million years old.

The research has also provided evidence to solve another mystery: when and how Saturn's rings appeared. "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them". "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", said O'Donoghue.

"I don't think it's unreasonable, with all these numbers being so high, that we have to seriously consider that the rings won't be around forever", he said. Saturn's rings are in the middle of their lifespan.

There are still some unanswered questions in the case of the disappearing rings.

Researchers determined that complex organic compounds are raining a chemical cocktail of dust grains from the closest ring, D ring, into the upper atmosphere.

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. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. "That wasn't a complete surprise", said Connerney. Pandora, which is about (52 miles, 84 kilometers) wide, was on the opposite side of the rings from Cassini and Enceladus when the image was taken. The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too. As the planet progresses in its 29.4-year orbit, the rings are exposed to the Sun to varying degrees.

The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association. The authors wish to recognize the significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Mauna Kea has within the indigenous Hawaiian community; they are fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.

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