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WATCH: Saturn could lose its rings in less than 300 million years, or sooner

/ 05:44 PM December 19, 2018

What makes Saturn distinct from all the rest of the planets in the solar system is the presence of its iconic rings. While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn’s appear to be more majestic. But what will happen if the planet’s ring system is set to disappear, say, in less than 300 million years?

A new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research confirms that Saturn is losing its rings at an alarming pace in a process called “ring rain,” as seen in a video by NASA Goddard via YouTube on Monday, Dec. 17.

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Researchers found that the icy dust that made up the planet’s rings are being charged by the ultraviolet light from the sun and plasma clouds from tiny meteoroids. They then became bound to the planet’s magnetic field and pulled into Saturn by gravity.

The icy dust then rains into Saturn before disintegrating. They later react chemically with the electrically charged part of the ionosphere, Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

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As seen in the instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii, United States, the ion glows under infrared light if the rain is light. The light emission, however, is dim whenever the ring rain is heavy.

“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 a statement.

“From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, but add to this the Cassini-spacecraft measured ring-material detected falling into Saturn’s equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live,” he added. “This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.”

The latest study confirms the research previously published by O’Donoghue in Icarus, a scientific journal dedicated to Solar System studies last Nov. 6. The study says that Saturn’s rings are set to disappear in 292 million years, considering a continued rate of loss via ring rain.

Aside from determining the lifespan of the planetary rings, the latest findings allowed researchers to make an assumption on when Saturn’s rings were formed. They inferred that Saturn was not formed with its rings intact; rather, the planet acquired it later. JB

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TOPICS: Gravity, icy dust, NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), planetary rings, Planets, rings, Saturn
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