Saturn losing its Rings

Saturn, the second-largest planet of the solar system. (Image courtesy NASA Website)

Saturn, the second-largest planet of the solar system, is losing its iconic rings fast, according to new research by National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the American space agency.

The loss of rings is at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago. The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field, according to a statement by NASA.
 

“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,” said James O’Donoghue of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 
 
“From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, but add to this the Cassini-spacecraft measured ring-material detected falling into Saturn’s equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live. This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.”
 
Scientists have long wondered if Saturn was formed with the rings or if the planet acquired them later in life. The new research favors the latter scenario, indicating that they are unlikely to be older than 100 million years, as it would take that long for the C-ring to become what it is today assuming it was once as dense as the B-ring. 
 
“We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime. 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 added.
 
Various theories have been proposed for the ring’s origin. 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 first hints that ring rain existed came from Voyager observations of seemingly unrelated phenomena: peculiar variations in Saturn’s electrically charged upper atmosphere (ionosphere), density variations in Saturn’s rings, and a trio of narrow dark bands encircling the planet at northern mid-latitudes. These dark bands appeared in images of Saturn’s hazy upper atmosphere (stratosphere) made by NASA’s Voyager 2 mission in 1981.
 
 As the planet progresses in its 29.4-year orbit, the rings are exposed to the Sun to varying degrees. 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 research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association, the statement said.
 
The W.M. Keck Observatory is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and NASA. The data in the form of its files are available from the Keck archive.

The authors wish to recognize the significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Mauna Kea has within the indigenous Hawaiian community; they are fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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