If you tell a child to pick a planet in our solar system to study, some will choose Saturn because of its large size and beautiful rings. However, NASA now says Saturn’s rings are fading, which means they eventually vanish completely.
NASA released a new video which highlights the fading of Saturn’s rings and their origin. The space agency’s research suggests Saturn’s iconic rings are disappearing at the highest possible rate, based on measurements captured by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft decades ago. The research also suggests Saturn’s gravity is pulling the rings into its atmosphere, where they’re seen as a dusty rain of ice particles influenced by Saturn’s magnetic field.
“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,” James O’Donoghue of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. “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. This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.”
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O’Donoghue is lead author of the new study on Saturn’s ring rain, which was published in the journal Icarus on Dec. 17.
Scientists have long been trying to figure whether the planet’s rings were formed at the same time as the planet itself or if they came to surround the planet later. Scientists believe the rings are probably not older than 100 million years.
“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 added.
Saturn’s rings mostly consist of chunks and bits of ice ranging in size from large boulders to tiny, dust-like particles. However, the particles which make up the rings continuously rain down on the planet, causing them to gradually fade. The paper estimates that 22,000 pounds of material is dumped from the rings per second and that eventually, the rings will go dry, although scientists say that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
Scientists believe this is happening because, like everything else in our solar system, Saturn is also impacted by the sun’s presence. The sun’s radiation is also affecting the rings, as are clouds of plasma from space rocks, according to NASA’s video. The material pulled off the rings is drawn by Saturn’s magnetic field, which drags them towards the planet.
Based on current observations and measurements of how much material is present in Saturn’s rings and how much is pulled down by the planet, NASA estimates that the rings will disappear within the next 300 million years. For us, that’s a lot of time, which means humans may not be able to witness the end of the rings. However, in astronomical terms, 300 million years is not a lot, considering that scientists believe our solar system has existed for 4.571 billion years.