Saturn is famous for its vast, icy rings, but the latest research shows they are rapidly being sucked into the planet by its powerful gravitational field. It is created in abundance when minuscule, charged particles escape Saturn's C-ring, spiral into the planet along magnetic field lines and collide with atmospheric atoms in what is called ring rain. Using a telescope, you can see even more moons and Saturn's rings tilted at 26 degrees. In October, NASA released findings from the hair-raising dive its Cassini spacecraft made between the innermost edge of Saturn's rings and the uppermost reaches of its atmosphere, shortly before its planned suicide plunge into the planet in September of 2017. Saturn's rings are dissolving faster than scientists expected, according to the study, and they could be gone in 100 million to 300 million years-a cosmological blink of the eye. Some suggest it was formed around 4 billion years ago - at the same time as the planet and the rest of the solar system - but others suggest they surrounded the planet many years after the solar system's birth. This is key because Saturn's upper atmosphere extends nearly to the rings.
Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the U.S. and United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing ring material to rain down onto Saturn at what NASA calls the "worst-case-scenario" rate of the estimates provided by the Voyager data.
Although we still have several million years left with Saturn and its rings, there's something so surreal about the fact that, one day, it'll be gone or just a whisper of its former self.
By far one of the most distinctive of the solar system's array of planets, Saturn, with its famous rings, has long fascinated astronomers and the public alike.
"This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over four billion years", stated Mr O'Donoghue, who is the lead author of the study on Saturn's ring rain.
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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. 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!"
There are still some unanswered questions in the case of the disappearing rings.
Various theories have been proposed for the ring's origin. The researchers also made the surprising discovery of a glowing band at a higher latitude in the planets southern hemisphere. 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.
As for the ionosphere changes, those are also tied to the ring rain. Since ultraviolet light from the Sun charges the ice grains and makes them respond to Saturn's magnetic field, varying exposure to sunlight should change the quantity of ring rain.