The rings of Saturn are disappearing and could be completely gone in just 100 million years, a new report has determined. The particles which make up this iconic system are being pulled into the atmosphere of the giant planet, as they are affected by Saturn’s intense magnetic field.
The Voyager spacecraft determined decades ago that the second-largest planet in our solar system was losing its rings, but new findings show that loss to be happening at a rate NASA describes as a “worst-case-scenario.”
“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. 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,” said James O’Donoghue of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In 1610, famed astronomer Galileo Galilei first saw the rings of Saturn, using a primitive telescope, not even as powerful as today’s toy telescopes. At the time, he described them as “ears” sticking out from the sides of the planet.
Today, we know they are collections of billions of pieces of rock and ice, ranging in size from microscopic pieces of dust to large boulders. Like satellites surrounding Earth, they are in orbit around their parent world, but they are doomed to one day fall into the world they circle.
As particles from the rings fall through the dense atmosphere of Saturn, chemical reactions increase the average lifespan of positively-charged hydrogen atoms present there, known as H3+. These glow in infrared light, which was measured by astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. This data, combined with findings developed in 1986 using information obtained by the Voyager spacecraft, revealed the new findings regarding the lifespan of the ring system.
The rings of Saturn have long been a mystery, as astronomer and physicists debated whether the structure formed at the same time as Saturn, or developed later. The latest data suggests the rings are, likely, no more than 100 million years old. If this is true, then we may be seeing the rings at the height of their splendor. It could also mean that the more distant gas giants, Uranus and Neptune, may have one also been home to magnificent ring systems.
The next time you look at Saturn, and admire its rings, remember how lucky we are to be seeing this magnificent sight, at just the right time in history!