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Saturn's rings disappearing at 'worst-case-scenario' rate

Saturn's rings disappearing at 'worst-case-scenario' rate

Sad as this news is, it may finally help answer a longstanding question: Did the planet form with its rings, or did they materialize later?

NASA has put together a nice video of the interaction of the rings with the planet to give more detail. 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". They detected some unusual changes in Saturn's ionosphere, density variations in the rings themselves, and three dark bands circling Saturn at mid-northern latitudes. In October, NASA released findings from the hair-raising dive its Cassini spacecraft made between the innermost edge of Saturn's rings and the uppermost reaches of its atmosphere, shortly before its planned suicide plunge into the planet in September of 2017.

"We estimate that this "ring rain" drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour", says NASA planetary scientist James O'Donoghue.

And although 100 million years might sounds like a long way off, the time span is comparatively short compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

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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New NASA research confirms the gas giant is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate estimated decades ago, based on Voyager 1 and 2 observations. That could mean the rings might disappear even sooner, in less than 100 million years, O'Donoghue said.

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.

'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!' O'Donoghue and his co-authors didn't include that infall in the estimates presented in their paper, but suggested in an accompanying statement that the two phenomena combined could gorge through the rings in more like 100 million years. The fact is that Saturn is rapidly heading towards another ring-free phase of its life, and that's pretty wild.

In future studies, scientists aim to measure the effects of Saturn's seasons on ring loss rates.

The spacecraft took a census of the particles it encountered that were falling toward the planet; the amount of ring rain Cassini caught is "completely consistent" with O'Donoghue's measurements, Spilker said. 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. The diameter of the ring system is huge: 170,000 miles, or nearly three-quarters of the distance from the Earth to the moon.