NASA discovers Saturn is losing its rings

Cesar Mills
December 20, 2018

Sadly, it's beauty may be fleeting, according to new research.

This revelation, along with information from Cassini spacecraft research, led scientists to estimate that the rings will cease to exist in fewer than 100 million years - a short time relative to Saturn's 4-billion-year existence, O'Donoghue says. And as long ago as 1980 and 1981, when Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 reconnoitered Saturn, the evidence began suggesting that the answer was no.

If the planet got them later in life, the rings could have formed when small, icy moons in orbit around Saturn collided, perhaps because their orbits were perturbed by a gravitational tug from a passing asteroid or comet.

The rings of Saturn, a ring system orbiting about the Saturn, consist of countless small particles made nearly of water ice with a trace component of rocky material. But dinosaurs didn't have telescopes, so it didn't really matter.

O'Donoghue also suggested that the disintegration of Saturn's rings raises a tantalizing question: has mankind "just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune", planets which today sport mere ringlets.

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According to the research team, the rate of ring decay is more consistent with the earlier hypothesis - that is, an age of about 100 million years - because that's how long it would take the planet's C ring to become as thin as it is, assuming it was once as dense as the B ring. Back in 1986, NASA scientists linked these narrow, dark bands to the shape of Saturn's substantial magnetic field. It's those interactions that cause the material be caught up in the planet's magnetic field and subsequently pulled down towards the planet by gravity.

The rings are mostly composed of lumps of water ice that range in size from microscopic grains to boulders of several yards across, the space agency said. When the equilibrium is comprised, gravity pulls the particles into its upper atmosphere along the planet's invisible magnetic field lines.

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

"While [the spectrometer] was created to investigate gases, we were able to measure the ring particles because they hit the spacecraft at such high velocities they vaporized", said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer on Cassini's nose and lead author of the study published in the journal Science. They analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effects on Saturn's ionosphere. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. The researchers also made the surprising discovery of a glowing band at a higher latitude in the planets southern hemisphere. The W.M. Keck Observatory is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA, and the data in the form of its files are available from the Keck archive.

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