Saturn’s rings are one of the solar system’s most recognizable features, but a new study indicates that the planet is losing its rings faster than anyone realized.
A recent study, published in Icarus, has confirmed that Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager- 1 & 2 observations made decades ago. The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity, as a dusty cover of ice particles under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field.
Since the 1980s, astronomers have known that Saturn has been shedding its rings, which are made up of swirling rocks and water ice. But the recent study shows that the process is occurring so fast that the rings could disappear in 100 million to 300 million years. Although that is an extremely long time for humans, it’s almost the blink of an eye on a cosmic timescale.
“The big conclusion is that ring systems are temporary features,” said James O’Donoghue, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study. “They’re just not built to last,” he added, as per an NBC report.
Why are Saturn’s rings dying
Using the special instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a team of scientists were able to image infrared light emitted by a form of hydrogen that originated from the inflowing water.
The scientists found that the amount of water flowing from Saturn’s rings to the planet would fill two Olympic-size swimming pools every hour. That’s 1.3 million gallons (five million liters).
The water’s journey from Saturn’s rings to the surface of the planet begins with chunks of ice, ranging in size from microscopic grains to boulders—perhaps ten feet across—which make up the rings of the planet.
This ice undergoes a bombardment of ultraviolet light from the Sun, which causes it to acquire a small electrical charge. According to the laws of physics, when a charged object moves and encounters a magnetic field, it experiences a force. As Saturn’s magnetic field is the second strongest in the solar system, the resulting force sends the charged ice crystals down to the planet’s surface.
If one were to compare this magnetically-generated flow rate to the amount of ice in the rings of Saturn, you would find that the rings will be completely gone in a very short amount of time, speaking in astronomical terms. On the basis of this measurement alone, Saturn’s rings will last only about 300 million years.
For a while now, scientists have wondered whether Saturn was formed with rings or if the planet acquired them later in life.
The new research favors the latter scenario, indicating that the rings are unlikely to be older than 100 million years, as it would take that long for the C-ring to become what it is today, assuming it was once as dense as the B-ring.
“We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime. 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!” the study’s lead author O’Donoghue said.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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