Thursday, 17 January, 2019

NASA says Saturn’s rings are disappearing right before our eyes

In an image from NASA a view of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft In an image from NASA a view of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft
Doris Mccormick | 20 December, 2018, 04:05

Saturn's iconic rings will one day be no more. Estimated to be less than 100 million years old, they're a "new" feature of the planet, and they won't be sticking around for long.

The "ring rain" drains an amount of water that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in half an hour, according to the study's lead author James O'Donoghue with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Hints of ring rain were first spotted in some curious phenomena observed by the Voyager probes.

Saturn's current alignment is in a straight line with the sun and Earth (with Earth in the middle), which affords us a great view of the planet and even some of its moons. "And they're going to disappear someday". The particles are balanced between Saturn's gravity and their orbital velocity, creating rings, per NASA. But don't panic yet, NASA estimates that there is enough material in the rings for them to last another 300 million years or so. And now, multiple lines of evidence are converging to suggest that the rings come with an expiration date.

Sad as this news is, it may finally help answer a longstanding question: Did the planet form with its rings, or did they materialize later? "Maybe we're just in that interesting, lucky period where we get to see Saturn's rings to the level that we see them". "However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today". In fact, without its icy accouterments, Saturn would look boring and beige compared to some of the other gas giants. Since ultraviolet light from the sun charges the ice grains and makes them respond to Saturn's magnetic field, varying exposure to sunlight should change the quantity of ring rain.

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NASA says the band is 'located 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 on Saturn as well'.

After measuring the amount of H3+ in Saturn's upper atmosphere, O'Donoghue and his team concluded that as much as 4,400 pounds of water are falling onto Saturn each second. The influx of water from the rings, appearing at specific latitudes, washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark in reflected light, producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.

Combining these with observations from Cassini, in which it analysed the material falling from Saturn's rings down to the planet, has allowed astronomers to calculate exactly how fast the rings are disintegrating.

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.

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