Saturn's Rings Are Disappearing According to NASA


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

"Saturn's rings appear to be young", said Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, project scientist for the Cassini mission that studied Saturn, who was not involved in the study. NASA says that Saturn's gravity is pulling the ice that makes up the rings "into a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field".

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

In this artist's impression, charged water molecules spiral around Saturn's magnetic field lines, flowing from the rings to the planet's upper atmosphere. "But add to this the Cassini spacecraft-measured ring material detected falling into Saturn's equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live". "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years". This is key because Saturn's upper atmosphere extends nearly to the rings.

Recent research using data from the Cassini spacecraft, which winged its way among Saturn and its moons for more than a decade, support the group's ring rain estimate.

'Something dramatic must have happened around Saturn to make them this large, long after the planet itself formed'.

Scientists estimate the rings could be gone in 300 million years, but they could vanish even faster.

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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. "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them". "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!"

Theories which could explain the origin of the rings include the idea they came about when small icy moons collided after their orbits were disturbed by a passing asteroid or comet.

It ain't St. Louis without the Gateway Arch, it ain't Mount Rushmore without the Presidents, and it sure ain't Saturn without the rings.

Researchers determined that complex organic compounds are raining a chemical cocktail of dust grains from the closest ring, D ring, into the upper atmosphere.

Dr James O'Donoghue, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues have used instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii to discover the phenomenon. The rings are made of billions of particles of ice and rock, some boulder-sized, but others microscopically tiny. This mosaic shows everything from the expansive rings to the hexagonal jet stream at the north pole.

The team would like to see how the ring rain changes with the seasons on Saturn.