Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

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. The rings are being absorbed into Saturn by gravity as a sooty rain of ice particles underneath the impact of Saturn's magnetic field.

A study by scientists from the space agency found the planet had been losing mass from its rings at the maximum rate predicted-enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in just half an hour.

Based on that current rate, and research carried out by the Cassini spacecraft, the rings have less than 100 million years to live.

The Cassini rocket finished its 20-year mission in 2017 by "death diving" into Saturn's atmosphere, recording information until the last minute. This by itself can deplete the entire ring system in 300 million years.

Saturn's rings are disappearing.

Saturn's iconic rings are made up of mostly frozen water which is actually getting pushed onto the planet's surface.

The grains of ice and dust that form Saturn's rings are constantly pulled into the gas giant's body by gravity. In this handout image provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Saturn's sunlit face is visible in this view from the vantage point just beneath the unilluminated side beneath the ring plane and taken in green light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on January 18, 2017. As Saturn is a relatively young planet at 4bn years old, this is a very short lifespan for the rings.

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"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", says O'Donoghue.

From Earth, Saturn's rings look like a halo, homogeneous and geometrically ideal.

But sometimes ring particles get electrically charged by light from the sun or other cosmic phenomena.

But if the rings really do only have 100 million years left as the study suggests, it may be the case the planet wasn't born with them, as it's unlikely something so fragile would have survived the previous multiple billion years.

Saturn's rings are being dragged into its main body by gravitational pull from the planet.

It washed away the stratospheric haze - making it appear dark and producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images. The NASA team is curious about how Saturn's 29.4-year orbit around the sun and its shifting seasons affect the quantity of ring rain.

The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association. They inferred that Saturn was not formed with its rings intact; rather, the planet acquired it later.

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