January 20, 2019

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

20 December 2018, 04:03 | Ross Houston

In an image from NASA a view of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft

In an image from NASA a view of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft

Their origins remain controversial, but now they are disappearing.

But scientists aren't sure whether Saturn has always had rings.

But the rings are collapsing into Saturn in the form of icy, dusty rain as a result of the planet's strong gravitational pull.

Chances are, you wouldn't recognize Saturn without its trademark thick band of rings.

A study by scientists from the space agency found the planet had been losing mass from its rings at the maximum rate predicted-enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in just half an hour.

And although 100 million years might sounds like a long way off, the time span is comparatively short compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

These included changes in Saturn's upper atmosphere, density variations in the rings and three narrow dark bands around the planet at northern mid-latitudes.

The discovery was made based on observations from NASA's probes Voyager 1 and 2, which had encounters with Saturn on their way to the outer Solar System in November 1980 and August 1981, respectively.

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"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.

According to the findings of the new research, it's now considered most probable that it acquired the rings after it formed and that they are unlikely to be older than 100 million years. 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!'

"I don't think it's unreasonable, with all these numbers being so high, that we have to seriously consider that the rings won't be around forever", he said. They detected some unusual changes in Saturn's ionosphere, density variations in the rings themselves, and three dark bands circling Saturn at mid-northern latitudes. This balance gets perturbed when ice particles are charged by the Sun's ultraviolet light, causing the particles to plummet down toward the planet along its magnetic field lines, with gravity providing an added boost.

The icy dust then rains into Saturn before disintegrating.

The NASA team observed the infrared light with Keck telescope in Hawaii. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. This mosaic shows everything from the expansive rings to the hexagonal jet stream at the north pole.

As for the ionosphere changes, those are also tied to the ring rain. 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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