Sci-tech

Saturn's Rings Are Disappearing According to NASA

Saturn's Rings Are Disappearing According to NASA

The paths of falling "ring rains" are influenced by Saturn's magnetic field. A timeline like that means that none of us will actually be around to see Saturn in its future ring-less state, but that's beside the point.

According to James O'Donoghue of NASA, the amount of "ring rain" being drained could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 30 minutes.

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. When this happens, the particles can feel the pull of Saturn's magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet at Saturn's rings. Once the particles are energized, they react to Saturn's magnetic field and ride the high-latitude lines of attraction down into the atmosphere.

The rings are being pulled apart by Saturn's gravity and onto the planet's surface as deluges of "ring rain", according to new NASA research.

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Of all the planets in our Solar System, you'd have to agree that Saturn is the most immediately recognizable.

This artist's conception shows how Saturn's appearance may change over the next hundred million years, as the innermost rings disappear first, raining down onto the planet, and then very slowly followed by material from the outer rings.

"Water ice, along with the newly discovered organic compounds, is falling out of the rings way faster than anyone thought - as much as 10,000 kilograms of material per second", he added.

The new findings, published to the journal Icarus, have helped find more clues to answering a "chicken and egg" scenario of Saturn's formation, that being whether Saturn formed with the rings or whether the planet acquired them later on. "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".

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Theories which could explain the origin of the rings include the idea they came about when small icy moons collided after their orbits were disturbed by a passing asteroid or comet.

The Cassini spacecraft captured this stunning view of Saturn and its rings on April 25, 2016. O'Donoghue and his colleagues theorized that the ring rain begins when ring particles become electrically charged, either by ultraviolet energy from the sun or by plasma-hot, charged gas generated when micrometeoroids bombard Saturn's atmosphere.

Researchers determined that complex organic compounds are raining a chemical cocktail of dust grains from the closest ring, D ring, into the upper atmosphere. "That wasn't a complete surprise", said Connerney. 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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