Shocking GIF shows how Saturn will eventually devour its famous rings

Muriel Hammond
December 20, 2018

The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, very slowly followed by the outer rings.

Scientists aren't completely certain if Saturn was born with its lovely halo, or if it acquired its ring system later in life. It's those interactions that cause the material be caught up in the planet's magnetic field and subsequently pulled down towards the planet by gravity. The rate at which the rings might waste away depends not only on how much material is still in the rings, but on other physical forces, Saturn's shifting seasons and the way in which ring material is replenished.

Saturn's moon Enceladus drifts before the rings and the tiny moon Pandora in this view that NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured on November 1, 2009.

Measurements of ring-material detected falling into Saturn's equator by the Cassini spacecraft suggest that the rings actually have less than 100 million years to live. "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over four billion years".

These included changes in Saturn's upper atmosphere, density variations in the rings and three narrow dark bands around the planet at northern mid-latitudes. Data the spacecraft beamed back showed that, while that region of space around the planet was fairly devoid of matter, it also revealed that Saturn's gravity was dragging particles from the inner edge of the ring down into the atmosphere.

The United States space agency NASA confirmed that Saturn is quickly losing its rings due to the planet's magnetic field.

Incredibly, the researchers estimate that 1,996kg of water are pouring out from Saturn's rings each second.

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. With its iconic rings, you can pick Saturn out in an instant, but if NASA scientists are right, we might actually be watching the planet's most eye-catching feature disappearing right in front of us. While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn's appear to be more majestic.

The particles that make up the rings are being bombarded by radiation from the Sun and, as the video explains, clouds of plasma from impacts of space rocks. Thankfully, humans have telescopes at a time when Saturn does have its glorious rings, so I suppose we're fortunate for that. They analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effects on Saturn's ionosphere.

Saturn has been observed by a team at NASA who have been using the Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea in the US state of Hawaii. "That wasn't a complete surprise", said Connerney.

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

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