Saturn is losing its rings quicker than expected, NASA warns

Saturn rings fade

Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

But, like everything in the Universe, they're not going to last forever - and now planetary scientists have discovered that they're disappearing at an incredibly fast rate.

They found that this was due to water molecules in the icy rings becoming electrically charged, either by interaction with ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, or by meteoroid bombardment, and that the water was then being caught up in Saturn's magnetic field, and dragged down into the planet's atmosphere by gravity. 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.

The entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, and taking into account the materials falling into the planet equator, detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the rings may have less than 100 million years to live. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years. Data the spacecraft beamed back showed that, while that region of space around the planet was fairly devoid of matter, it also revealed that Saturn's gravity was dragging particles from the inner edge of the ring down into the atmosphere.

Incredibly, the researchers estimate that 1,996kg of water are pouring out from Saturn's rings each second. New research supports the idea that they formed later in the planet's existence and are unlikely to be more than 100 million years old.

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. NASA says that the most iconic feature of Saturn, those magnificent rings, are disappearing. "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!"

"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.

Saturn has been observed by a team at NASA who have been using the Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea in the US state of Hawaii.

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. They analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effects on Saturn's ionosphere. Pandora, which is about (52 miles, 84 kilometers) wide, was on the opposite side of the rings from Cassini and Enceladus when the image was taken. The light emission, however, is dim whenever the ring rain is heavy.

At any given moment, the majority of the water ice grains that form Saturn's rings maintain a stable trajectory.

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