Only Diamonds Are Forever: Saturn Is Losing Its Rings, Says NASA

Gwen Vasquez
December 20, 2018

Scientists first documented ring rain back in 2013, but new research, led by James O'Donoghue from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shows the effect is happening much quicker than expected, and by outcome, so is the rate at which Saturn's rings are decaying.

"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 NASA's James O'Donoghue, lead author of the study.

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

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.

Ring rains react with Saturn's ionosphere to increase the longevity of charged particles called trihydrogen cation, H3 ions. "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them". While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn's appear to be more majestic.

In future studies, scientists aim to measure the effects of Saturn's seasons on ring loss rates.

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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The culprit: "ring rain", a phenomenon in which particles and gases fall into the planet's atmosphere.

Saturn's rings make it one of the most striking planets in the solar system, but scientists believe they could disappear in less than a 100 million years - which isn't all that long when you consider that the gas giant itself is more than 4 billion years old. This is where Saturn's magnetic field intersects the orbit of Enceladus, a geologically active moon that is shooting geysers of water ice into space, indicating that some of those particles are raining onto Saturn as well.

Scientists have long discussed the possible origin of the Saturn ring system, which may have formed from shattered pieces of small moons, comets or asteroids.

Their observations revealed glowing bands in Saturn's northern and southern hemispheres where the magnetic field lines that intersect the ring plane enter the planet.

The team also discovered a glowing band at a higher latitude in the southern hemisphere. This mosaic shows everything from the expansive rings to the hexagonal jet stream at the north pole. The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too.

At any given moment, the majority of the water ice grains that form Saturn's rings maintain a stable trajectory.

The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association.

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