Saturn Losing Its Rings at Quicker Rate Than Projected

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. The paths of falling "ring rains" are influenced by Saturn's magnetic field.

The "ring rain" drains an amount of water that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in half an hour, according to the study's lead author James O'Donoghue with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. That rate, combined with the current mass of Saturn's rings, is what lets scientists calculate that 300-million-year life expectancy, although the large range on the infall calculation means there's quite a bit of uncertainty about the rings' lifetime. "This is relatively short, compared with Saturn's age of over four billion years".

"While [the spectrometer] was created to investigate gases, we were able to measure the ring particles because they hit the spacecraft at such high velocities they vaporized", said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer on Cassini's nose and lead author of the study published in the journal Science. Rather than forming along with the planet, billions of years ago, they most likely came from some process, such as a collision or a large icy moon straying too close to the planet, that happened, at most, around 100 million years ago.

The study suggests Saturn's rings are unlikely to be older than 100 million years. While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn's appear to be more majestic.

Various theories have been proposed for the ring's origin.

They inferred that Saturn was not formed with its rings intact; rather, the planet acquired it later.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured a series of Saturn images in 2016.

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Growing up, learning the planets, Saturn and its rings always seemed like the coolest planet, the most fashion-forward of the bunch. NASA's Voyager mission visited the planet in the early 1980s.

Aside from determining the lifespan of the planetary rings, the latest findings allowed researchers to make an assumption on when Saturn's rings were formed.

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

The gas giant's magnetic force pushes the charged particles inward. They're caught in the gravity dance of Saturn trying to pull the back in and the orbital velocity that wants to fling them into space.

Then, the ring particles will drop into Saturn's upper atmosphere where they vaporize and the water can chemically react with Saturn's ionosphere. The molecule, H3+, is made up of three hydrogen atoms (minus an electron).

As seen in the instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii, United States, the ion glows under infrared light if the rain is light.

The rings are depositing so much ice on to the planet that they will essentially destroy themselves. The discs material is forced onto the planet through a combination of being blasted by radiation from the Sun in addition to clouds of plasma from impacts of space rocks. "That wasn't a complete surprise", said Connerney. The probe observed ring particles moving quickly into Saturn's equator. This view looks toward the night side on Pandora as well, which is lit by dim golden light reflected from Saturn.

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