Saturn put a ring on it, but will it last? A recent study co-authored by NASA Goddard space physicist James O’Donoghue suggests the answer is no!
Thanks to a process called “ring rain,” water is being pulled out of the 100-million-year-old rings of Saturn and onto the planet. Based on observations made from Hawaii, ring rain could be taking as much as 6,000 pounds of Saturn’s rings every second!
Using the estimation of the mass of Saturn’s rings (about 60 quintillion pounds), that means ring rain could cause the ring system of Saturn to be depleted in the next 300 million years. Additional data from the Cassini mission that spent 13 years studying Saturn suggests this process could even happen in just 100 million years.
First observed in 1610 by Galileo, we’ve learned so much about the amazing rings of Saturn. From thinking the rings were two giant moons, to suggesting they were a solid disk around the planet, to sending four spacecraft missions to observe even closer, we know now that the rings are made of millions of small pieces of ice.
Being mostly water-ice in composition, one of the most widely accepted ideas for how the rings formed is that they used to be moons whose outer icy layers were pulled apart by Saturn’s gravity, while the cores of the moons fell into Saturn in its earlier years. The icy moon layers then flattened out into a bright, wide set of icy rings.
A few things to keep in mind:
- There is a large range of how much water the ring rain actually grabs at different times (it may be as little as 900 pounds a second), so the estimation is just that: an estimation.
- 300 million years seems like a long time, but it is relatively short when we consider the age of the universe.
- If rings aren’t supposed to be a permanent fixture of planets, maybe the other outer planets (Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune) used to have wider, brighter rings too!
Interested in learning more about the planets in our solar system? Soar through space when you catch a show in LSC’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium, the biggest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. Click here to get showtimes and see what’s currently playing.
Saturn is officially losing its rings — and they’re disappearing much faster than scientists had anticipated
- Saturn is losing its rings.
- New data from NASA’s former Cassini spacecraft has revealed that the rings will be gone 200 million years sooner than previously estimated.
- We explain what’s going on with Saturn’s rings and why they’re disappearing at a faster rate than previously thought.
If you were to pick Saturn out of a lineup you’d probably recognize it by its iconic rings. They’re the biggest, brightest rings in our solar system. Extending over 280,000 km from the planet; wide enough to fit 6 Earths in a row. But Saturn won’t always look this way. Because its rings are disappearing.
That’s right, Saturn is losing its rings! And fast. Much faster, even, than scientists had first thought. Right now, it’s raining 10,000 kilograms of ring rain on Saturn per second. Fast enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool in half an hour.
This rain is actually the disintegrated remains of Saturn’s rings. Saturn’s rings are mostly made up of chunks of ice and rock. Which are under constant bombardment: Some by UV radiation from the Sun and others by tiny meteoroids.
When these collisions take place, the icy particles vaporize, forming charged water molecules that interact with Saturn’s magnetic field; ultimately, falling toward Saturn, where they burn up in the atmosphere.
Now, we’ve known about ring rain since the 1980s when NASA’s Voyager mission first noticed mysterious, dark bands that turned out to be ring rain caught in Saturn’s magnetic fields. Back then, researchers estimated the rings would totally drain in 300 million years. But observations by NASA’s former Cassini spacecraft give a darker prognosis. Before its death dive into Saturn in 2017, Cassini managed to get a better look at the amount of ring-dust raining on Saturn’s equator.
And discovered that it was raining heavier than previously thought. With these clearer observations, scientists calculated the rings had only 100 million years left to live. Now, it’s tough to imagine a ringless Saturn.
But for much of its existence, the planet was as naked as Earth. While Saturn first formed around 4.5 BILLION years ago, studies suggest the rings are only 100- 200 million years old, tops. That’s younger than some dinosaurs.
So when you think about it, we’re pretty lucky we happened to be around to see those magnificent rings. Really lucky, in fact. Because efforts to study those rings have led us to other discoveries.
For example, as Cassini explored Saturn’s moon Enceladus, it uncovered a trail of ice and gas leading back to Saturn’s E ring. Enceladus is the whitest, most reflective moon in our solar system.
And by studying the ring more closely, scientists now know why. Turns out, the moon is constantly gushing out gas and dust.
Some of it ends up in space and in the E ring while the rest snows back onto the moon’s surface, creating a blinding white frost.
So, who knows what other discoveries might be hiding within the rings? At the very least, it’s clear we’d better keep looking while we still can.
For permission content from this site must be hyperlinked when used!