Research finds rings of Saturn are dying

20 December, 2018, 17:42 | Author: Amos Gonzales
  • Saturn-Losing-Rings-At-Swift-Rate

New NASA research confirms that Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago. The paths of falling "ring rains" are influenced by Saturn's magnetic field.

O'Donoghue and his colleagues observed this phenomenon with the huge Keck telescope in Hawaii and concluded that a combination of Saturn's gravity and magnetism pulls an Olympic-size swimming pool worth of material into the planet every 30 minutes.

The vast majority of Saturn's orbital circles are made up of chunks of ice ranging from microscopic to boulder-sized. He also noted that we could not catch the times when Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune was a large system of rings, which to date are likely to be considerably depleted. This was after the Cassini mission revealed that the unique features may only live up to 100 million years. According to him, this fact alone already indicates that "the whole system of the rings will disappear after 300 million years".

If O'Donoghue is right about the 100 million-year timeline, humanity should be grateful that we came along now, in time to see the rings before they're gone.

Growing up, learning the planets, Saturn and its rings always seemed like the coolest planet, the most fashion-forward of the bunch.

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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.

Leading up to the September 15, 2017 "Grand Finale" of NASA's Cassini spacecraft, when the mission team plunged the probe down into the planet's atmosphere, the spacecraft was sent on a trajectory to slip between the planet and its rings. Since ultraviolet light from the sun charges the ice grains and makes them respond to Saturn's magnetic field, varying exposure to sunlight should change the quantity of ring rain.

The new findings, published to the journal Icarus, have helped find more clues to answering a "chicken and egg" scenario of Saturn's formation, that being whether Saturn formed with the rings or whether the planet acquired them later on. This is key because Saturn's upper atmosphere extends nearly to the rings. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

These include changes in Saturn's upper atmosphere, density variations in the rings and three narrow dark bands around the planet at northern mid-latitudes. It is possible, in the age of the dinosaurs, that Saturn's rings were even larger and brighter than we see them today.

Some scientists believe the rings were formed as the planet was four billion years ago, while others suggest it was a much later addition, potentially formed when small, ice moons orbiting around the planet collided.

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