Saturn's rings are vanishing at 'worst-case' rate, says NASA

Saturn rings fade

Saturn's rings are vanishing at 'worst-case' rate, says NASA

That's the conclusion of a new investigation into a phenomenon called "ring rain", which pulls water out of Saturn's rings and into the planet's midlatitude regions.

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

NASA released a pretty wonderful GIF of Saturn, showing the transition from what it looks like today to what it will look like towards the end of the rings' lifespan.

"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", lead author James O'Donoghue, a space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

Measurements of ring-material detected falling into Saturn's equator by the Cassini spacecraft suggest that the rings actually have less than 100 million years to live. "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years". The team looked at previous research about the planet's "ring rain" that tracked how much mass was being lost.

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Those spacecraft observed suspicious variations in both the electrical charge in Saturn's ionosphere and the thickness of its rings, as well as dark-colored bands running around the planet at higher latitudes.

Scientists estimate the rings could be gone in 300 million years, but they could vanish even faster. It is not clear if the rings, which are mostly made up of water-ice, formed at the same time as the planet, or if Saturn gained them at some point later in its history. With its iconic rings, you can pick Saturn out in an instant, but if NASA scientists are right, we might actually be watching the planet's most eye-catching feature disappearing right in front of us. "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.

The particles that make up the rings are being bombarded by radiation from the Sun and, as the video explains, clouds of plasma from impacts of space rocks. This balance gets perturbed when ice particles are charged by the Sun's ultraviolet light, causing the particles to plummet down toward the planet along its magnetic field lines, with gravity providing an added boost.

Researchers determined that complex organic compounds are raining a chemical cocktail of dust grains from the closest ring, D ring, into the upper atmosphere. 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. This mosaic shows everything from the expansive rings to the hexagonal jet stream at the north pole. The light emission, however, is dim whenever the ring rain is heavy. The W.M. Keck Observatory is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA, and the data in the form of its files are available from the Keck archive.

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