According to a new study, Saturn's rings could completely disappear in the next 100 million to 300 million years

By Maria Pasquini
January 28, 2019 03:27 PM
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Saturn is known for its distinctive rings, but a new study finds they won’t be there forever.

According to the study, which was published in December in the journal Icarus, Saturn’s rings are rapidly disappearing and could be gone completely in the next 100 million to 300 million years.

Utilizing data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited around Saturn for 13 years before purposely crashing into the planet in 2017, the authors of the study were able to determine that the rings — which are partially made out of ice — are falling into the planet, in a process which scientists call “ring rain.”

“The rings are literally raining water onto the planet,” said lead author James O’Donoghue, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, according to NBC News.

“The rate is about 2 tons per second — enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 30 minutes or so,” he added.

Scientists believe that the “ring rain” is caused by “ultraviolet radiation from the sun,” which gives the ice in the rings an electric charge. That charge causes the rings to move towards the planet.

However, just because Saturn’s rings are disappearing doesn’t mean there’s necessarily any cause for alarm — it might just mean that the rings haven’t always been there.

“The big conclusion is that ring systems are temporary features,” O’Donoghue added, according to NBC News. “They’re not built to last.”

“All the evidence keeps pointing lately to the rings being young, 100 million years or younger,” O’Donoghue also remarked, according to CBC News. “Which shows you the possible window might just be a few hundred million years of this ring system. We’re lucky to be around in this time.”

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Another recent study, which also utilized data from NASA’s Cassini probe, concluded that Saturn’s rings likely formed between 10 million to 100 million years ago.

In the study, which was published in the journal Science, researchers found that Saturn’s rings have a relatively small mass, which suggests they are newer additions to the planet, which has existed for around 4.5 billion years.

“It’s hard to understand how they could have formed that recently,” said Philip Nicholson, one of the authors of the study, according to NPR.

It still remains unclear how the rings were formed in the first place.