Saturn With No Rings? It Could Happen, and Sooner Than Astronomers Expected


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

Scientists first documented ring rain back in 2013, but new research, led by James O'Donoghue from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shows the effect is happening much quicker than expected, and by outcome, so is the rate at which Saturn's rings are decaying.

Scientists have long discussed the possible origin of the Saturn ring system, which may have formed from shattered pieces of small moons, comets or asteroids.

This means the rings are disappearing at an "alarming speed" - and could be gone within 100 million years.

And it turns out, according to NASA at least, that the rings are on their way out. But dinosaurs didn't have telescopes, so it didn't really matter. O'Donoghue is lead author of a study on Saturn's ring rain appearing in Icarus December 17.

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. The study says that Saturn's rings are set to disappear in 292 million years, considering a continued rate of loss via ring rain. But then a 1986 paper proposed that those dark bands were being caused by ice particles from Saturn's rings, charged by the Sun or plasma fields and pulled down the planet's magnetic field lines.

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Saturn's rings are mostly chunks of water ice ranging in size from microscopic dust grains to boulders several yards (meters) across.

The new research relies on ground-based observations gathered over a couple of hours in 2011 from Hawaii of a special form of hydrogen that glows in infrared light. When this happens, the particles can feel the pull of Saturn's magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet at Saturn's rings.

One hundred million years is a long time by human reckoning, but on a time-scale that is fairly quick compared to the age of the solar system, Saturn is expected to dramatically change appearance.

"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. "We identified Enceladus and the E-ring as a copious source of water as well, based on another narrow dark band in that old Voyager image".

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.