Saturn is eating away its icy rings

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Saturn may be known as the Ringed Planet, but those iconic rings are vanishing, and the latest research shows that they are disappearing at an astounding rate. New research suggests the rings are disappearing at the fastest rate estimated by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions - the "worst-case-scenario" rate.

Why is this happening?

Saturn is Losing its Rings at Worst Case Scenario Rate
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"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", lead study author James O'Donoghue, a NASA fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

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

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Even though it actually isn't the only planet in our solar system with rings - Neptune and Uranus are also wearing some icy jewellery - Saturn is the one that stands out from the crowd. It's like a "will they, won't they" relationship in a sitcom, very Sam and Diane. O'Donoghue and his colleagues theorized that the ring rain begins when ring particles become electrically charged, either by ultraviolet energy from the sun or by plasma-hot, charged gas generated when micrometeoroids bombard Saturn's atmosphere. 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.

The origins of Saturn's rings have long puzzled scientists, who are still unsure if the planet was formed with the rings or if it acquired them at a later stage. They analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effects on Saturn's ionosphere.

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The rate that water ice is falling onto Saturn means that eventually the rings will run out of material and disappear altogether. Concluding, the team wrote: "Assuming that our Saturn northern Spring measurement represents all seasons, and that the rings are able to reorganize over time, the ring rain mechanism alone will drain Saturn's rings to the planet in 292 million years". But prior to that, scientists had thought that the rings were perhaps only 100 million years old, possibly created by a collision between a moon and a comet, or between Saturn's moons (it has many), which resulted in debris captured in rings by the planet's gravity. That kind of scale is what makes space so fascinating. "We identified Enceladus and the E-ring as a copious source of water as well, based on another narrow dark band in that old Voyager image". Its geologic activity and water ocean make Enceladus one of the most promising places to search for extraterrestrial life. This view looks toward the night side on Pandora as well, which is lit by dim golden light reflected from Saturn. As the planet progresses in its 29.4-year orbit, the rings are exposed to the Sun to varying degrees.

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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