Saturn is probably the most iconic of all the planets in our solar system thanks to its famous rings. They extend over 280,000 km (175,000 miles) from the planet, a distance which can fit six Earths in a row. Unfortunately, Saturn’s rings are disappearing, so the planet will change its look in the future.
In fact, scientists are surprised to find that the planet is losing its rings at a faster pace than expected. Apparently, rings are being pulled into the planet by gravity in the form of rain, known as ring rain. There’s a 10,000kg of ring rain on the planet per second, which could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in around 30 minutes.
Saturn’s rings consist of chunks of rock and ice which are constantly bombarded by tiny meteoroids and the UV radiation from the Sun. This, in turn, results in ring rain which is the disintegrated remains of the rings.
The icy particles vaporize when these collisions happen, creating charged water molecules which interact with the magnetic field of Saturn. When they fall toward the planet, they burn up in the atmosphere.
Ring rain was first noticed by NASA’s Voyager mission in the 1980s. Once researchers found out the true nature of these mysterious, dark bands caught in the magnetic fields of Saturn, they estimated it’d take around 300million years for the rings to drain completely. However, NASA’s former Cassini spacecraft observations suggested a darker prognosis. Thanks to the images from the spacecraft taken right before its death in 2017, researchers got a better look at the amount of ring-dust raining on the equator of Saturn.
They realized it was raining heavier than they first thought. Having these observations in mind, they calculated the Saturn’s rings will disappear in only 100,000 million years.
Can you even imagine Saturn without its rings?
The truth is, Saturn didn’t have its rings for most of its existence. While the planet was formed around 4.5 billion years ago, the rings are not older than 100 to 200 million years. That means the rings are younger than certain dinosaurs.
Turns out, we’re lucky to live in the time of these magnificent rings. In fact, researching them has led scientists to other discoveries as well.
While exploring Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, Cassini spacecraft uncovered a trail of gas and ice leading back to the second outermost ring of Saturn – E ring. Enceladus happens to be the most reflective and whitest moon in our solar system. By analyzing the ring more closely, researchers now know the reason. Namely, the moon is gushing out dust and gas all the time, some of it ending up in the E ring and in space, while the rest snows back onto the surface of the moon. This leads to the creation of a blinding white frost.
The rings can hide so many things we can’t even imagine. All things considered, we should keep looking while we still can.