Saturn Losing Its Rings at Quicker Rate Than Projected


"The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles below the effect of Saturn's magnetic discipline", says NASA.

O'Donoghue and his colleagues observed this phenomenon with the huge Keck telescope in Hawaii and concluded that a combination of Saturn's gravity and magnetism pulls an Olympic-size swimming pool worth of material into the planet every 30 minutes. According to a press release from NASA, Saturn really is "losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate estimated from Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago".

No doubt that's a long time for us, but when you consider the planet has been spinning for about four billion years, it's a mere blink of the cosmological eye in the sky.

But don't shed a tear for Saturn just yet. But there is another side to that coin.

We live in an extraordinary era, scientists say - the brief blip in the 4.6-billion-year life of our solar system in which Saturn's rings are visible.

"While [the spectrometer] was created to investigate gases, we were able to measure the ring particles because they hit the spacecraft at such high velocities they vaporized", said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer on Cassini's nose and lead author of the study published in the journal Science. Thanks for the memories.

Both O'Donoghue's findings and the observations from Cassini also help to answer the long-held question of whether Saturn was born with its halo or acquired it later in life. Once the particles are energized, they react to Saturn's magnetic field and ride the high-latitude lines of attraction down into the atmosphere. Though Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are also banded, Saturn's adornment is by far the most impressive in the solar system.

The research, published in the journal Icarus, suggests Saturn's rings are relatively young, having only formed 100 million years ago.

Saturn is famous for its vast, icy rings, but the latest research shows they are rapidly being sucked into the planet by its powerful gravitational field. "That wasn't a complete surprise", said Connerney.

Saturn's rings, captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. "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". Pandora, which is about (52 miles, 84 kilometers) wide, was on the opposite side of the rings from Cassini and Enceladus when the image was taken.

The researchers will now focus on observing the changes of Saturn's rings during its long seasons.

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

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

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