Thursday, 27 June, 2019

Saturn's rings are vanishing at 'worst-case' rate, says NASA

Saturn rings fade Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected
Sandra Phillips | 19 December, 2018, 07:14

Bad news for stargazers of the future: Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum estimated rate predicted - and may be gone in the cosmic blink of an eye (or roughly 100 million years). It is created in abundance when minuscule, charged particles escape Saturn's C-ring, spiral into the planet along magnetic field lines and collide with atmospheric atoms in what is called ring rain.

Saturn's rings are made of chunks of water ice varying in size - some are microscopic while others are several yards wide. Their origins remain controversial, but now they are disappearing.

"'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 Greenbelt, Maryland".

This revelation, along with information from Cassini spacecraft research, led scientists to estimate that the rings will cease to exist in fewer than 100 million years - a short time relative to Saturn's 4-billion-year existence, O'Donoghue says. The rate of loss was further refined by Cassini, which completed its mission by plummeting through Saturn's rings in September previous year.

The NASA team observed the infrared light with Keck telescope in Hawaii.

"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", O'Donoghue said.

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"From this along, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years", he continued. However, over the course of the next 100 million years, the spectacular icy rings will slowly but surely disappear from the night sky. 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.

Assuming a constant rate of ring rain - which Spilker said is a substantial unknown - the team calculated that Saturn's rings could mostly shed themselves into oblivion within 300 million years.

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. The rings could disintegrate and fall into Saturn in as little as 100 million years" time, in a process dubbed "ring rain'. 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. "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".

As for the ionosphere changes, those are also tied to the ring rain.

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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