Published: Wed, December 19, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, very slowly followed by the outer rings.

The fate of the rings looks even grimmer considering research published earlier this year using Cassini data, which looked at a different, still-more-voluminous, type of infall from Saturn's rings that's descending into the planet.

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 rings are made up largely of frozen water, and they're actively dumping incredible amounts of ice onto the planet constantly. The rings themselves are said to be a young feature of the planet, at least by astronomical standards.

"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.

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

That's a snap of the fingers in cosmic time, particularly considering Saturn is more than 4 billion years old. New research suggests the rings are disappearing at the fastest rate estimated by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions - the "worst-case-scenario" rate.

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One hundred million years is a long time by human reckoning, but on a time-scale that is fairly quick compared to the age of the solar system, Saturn is expected to dramatically change appearance. They are thought to be less than 100 million years old. The fact is that Saturn is rapidly heading towards another ring-free phase of its life. 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.

'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!'

Artist's impression of how Saturn could look in the next 100 million years.

This video explores how Saturn is losing its rings at a rapid rate in geologic timescales and what that reveals about the planet's history. The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too.

Once there, the icy ring particles vaporize and the water can react chemically with Saturn's ionosphere. The influx of water from the rings, appearing at specific latitudes, washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark in reflected light, producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.

"Water ice, along with the newly discovered organic compounds, is falling out of the rings way faster than anyone thought - as much as 10,000 kilograms of material per second", he said.

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