Saturn with no rings? It could happen, and sooner than astronomers expected

Saturn with no rings? It could happen, and sooner than astronomers expected

"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", said James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Based on that current rate, and research carried out by the Cassini spacecraft, the rings have less than 100 million years to live.

Apparently, the planet's gravitational pull is bringing the ice fields down towards the surface, in a near-constant bombardment of icy rain.

Their origins have always been debated among scientists. "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over four billion years".

According to the research team, the rate of ring decay is more consistent with the earlier hypothesis - that is, an age of about 100 million years - because that's how long it would take the planet's C ring to become as thin as it is, assuming it was once as dense as the B ring.

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"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", O'Donoghue said. 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.

During the final plunge, Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer acted as the "nose" of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere. When this happens, the particles can feel the pull of Saturn's magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet at Saturn's rings. The rate of loss was further refined by Cassini, which completed its mission by plummeting through Saturn's rings in September past year.

"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. All, however, seem to be transpiring faster than scientists thought-dropping as much as 22,000 pounds of material per second.

Once there, the icy ring particles vaporize and the water can react chemically with Saturn's ionosphere. 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.

"At some point they gradually drain away unless somehow they're getting new material". O'Donoghue and his co-authors didn't include that infall in the estimates presented in their paper, but suggested in an accompanying statement that the two phenomena combined could gorge through the rings in more like 100 million years. And this gas giant has a volume that's a hulking 700 times that of our own planet. The team at NASA is looking to see how the ring rain will change with the seasons on Saturn.


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