Saturn’s iconic rings will disappear millions of years from now

Saturn’s iconic rings will disappear millions of years from now

Saturn’s iconic rings will disappear millions of years from now

But, like everything in the Universe, they're not going to last forever - and now planetary scientists have discovered that they're disappearing at an incredibly fast rate.

Both findings help answer another mystery: whether Saturn was born with its rings or acquired them later in its life, possibly by the collision of icy moons that were orbiting the planet.

Observations show the rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice and particles influenced by the planet's powerful magnetic field.

The rings of Saturn, a ring system orbiting about the Saturn, consist of countless small particles made nearly of water ice with a trace component of rocky material.

Every half hour, enough water is drained from the rings to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, O'Donoghue said in a NASA press release. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years. Ring particles are caught in a balancing act between the pull of Saturn's gravity, which wants to draw them back into the planet, and their orbital velocity, which wants to fling them outward into space.

This suggested that electrically-charged ice particles from the rings were flowing down invisible magnetic field lines - and dumping water in the upper atmosphere.

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A new research by NASA confirms that Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago. If it's the former, the rings formed about 4.4 billion years ago, but if it's the latter, they only formed about 100 million years ago, likely the outcome of colliding moons in orbit around Saturn, according to research published in 2016.

Scientists have long wondered if Saturn was formed with its rings or if they developed later, this new study indicates it likely that they occurred sometime after the planet was formed, and that the planet will continue to exist without them.

"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.

Even though it actually isn't the only planet in our solar system with rings - Neptune and Uranus are also wearing some icy jewellery - Saturn is the one that stands out from the crowd. 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. For the new study, O'Donoghue used the Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to detect and measure these liquid-on-ionosphere chemical interactions. At that rate of loss, the rings should be gone in about 292 million years. Pandora, which is about (52 miles, 84 kilometers) wide, was on the opposite side of the rings from Cassini and Enceladus when the image was taken.

Researchers now hope to see how the ring rain changes during different seasons-ultraviolet light from the sun might change the quantity of the mass being lost.

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