News – Saturn's rings are disappearing at "worst case" rate, says NASA


OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's New in Space – The Biggest News Coming to Earth from Space

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist / Science Writer

Tuesday, December 18, 2018, 20:31 – Saturn may be known as the Planet of the Rings, but these iconic rings are disappearing, and more recent research shows that they are disappearing at an astonishing rate.

Decades ago, as Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft passed through Saturn, giving us the first glimpse of this incredible planet, the scientists used the data the probes sent back to find that the surrounding wide rings were raining on the top of the planet . atmosphere.

They found that this was due to water molecules in the icy rings becoming electrically charged, either by interaction with the sun's ultraviolet radiation, or by meteor bombardment, and that water was being captured in the magnetic field of Saturn, and dragged down the atmosphere of the planet by gravity. Based on their findings, scientists plotted different rates of ring loss, to estimate how long it would take before they disappeared altogether.

In this artist's print, charged water molecules spiral around the lines of Saturn's magnetic field, flowing from the rings to the planet's upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

"We estimate that this ring rain drains a quantity of water products that can fill an Olympic pool of Saturn's rings in half an hour," said James O'Donoghue of the Goddard Space Flight Center , from NASA. Tuesday. "That's it, the entire ring system will have disappeared in 300 million years, but add to that the ring material measured by Cassini-detected spacecraft falling on Saturn's equator, and the rings are less than 100 million years old "This is relatively short compared to Saturn's age of more than 4 billion years."

Arriving at the Grand Finale & # 39; of September 15, 2017 from NASA's Cassini spacecraft as the team plunged the probe into the planet's atmosphere, the spacecraft was sent on a path to pass between the planet and its rings. Data from the spacecraft showed that while that region of space around the planet was largely devoid of matter, it also revealed that Saturn's gravity was dragging particles from the inner edge of the ring into the atmosphere.

Based on a new research paper written by O & # 39; Donoghue and six other researchers from institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing the ring material to fall on Saturn in that the NASA calls it "worst case." scenario "rate estimates provided by Voyager data.


One hundred million years is a long time for human calculation, but on a relatively rapid time scale compared to the age of the solar system, Saturn is expected to dramatically change the appearance.

The artist's conception shows how the appearance of Saturn can change over the next hundred million years, when the innermost rings disappear first, raining on the planet, and then very slowly followed by the material of the outer rings. Credit: NASA / Cassini / James O & Donoghue

Research has already shown that Saturn's rings are relatively young. Instead of forming together with the planet billions of years ago, they probably came from some process, such as a collision or a large icy moon that was very close to the planet, which happened at most about 100 million years ago .

"We are fortunate enough to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which seems to be in the middle of its life," added O & # 39; Donoghue. "However, if the rings are temporary, we may have lost the giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only small curls today!"

Source: NASA


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