Ringless Saturn Could Happen A Lot Sooner Than Expected, Scientists Say


New research suggests the rings are disappearing at the fastest rate estimated by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions - the "worst-case-scenario" rate. According to studies, gravity is pulling the rings into Saturn as a dusty rain of ice particles with the help of the planet's magnetic field. NASA estimates that in about 300 million years the rings will be entirely gone.

As you may remember from science class or The Magic School Bus, the rings of Saturn are mostly made up of chunks of water ice, ranging from "microscopic dust grains to boulders several yards (meters) across". He also noted that we could not catch the times when Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune was a large system of rings, which to date are likely to be considerably depleted. Saturn takes 29.4-years to complete an orbit and experiencing various level of sun's radiation during that turn.

NASA has put together a nice video of the interaction of the rings with the planet to give more detail.

This artist's conception shows how Saturn's appearance may change over the next hundred million years, as the innermost rings disappear first, raining down onto the planet, and then very slowly followed by material from the outer rings.

The rings are kept in place by a combination of factors: Saturn's gravity pulls them in, but the planet's spin in combination with the rings' orbital velocity, tries to fling them back out into space.

"Something dramatic must have happened around Saturn to make them this large, long after the planet itself formed". 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.

Some scientists believe the rings were formed as the planet was four billion years ago, while others suggest it was a much later addition, potentially formed when small, ice moons orbiting around the planet collided.

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Those spacecraft observed suspicious variations in both the electrical charge in Saturn's ionosphere and the thickness of its rings, as well as dark-colored bands running around the planet at higher latitudes.

Saturn's rings are being dragged into its main body by gravitational pull from the planet.

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.

The influx of water from the rings washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark and producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.

Dr O'Donoghue's research will now explore how the rings change according to changes in Saturn's seasons.

Dr James O'Donoghue, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues have used instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii to discover the phenomenon.