Saturn losing rings at 'worst-case-scenario' rate

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Saturn may be known as the Ringed Planet, but those iconic rings are vanishing, and the latest research shows that they are disappearing at an astounding rate.

Both findings help answer another mystery: whether Saturn was born with its rings or acquired them later in its life, possibly by the collision of icy moons that were orbiting the planet.

"We estimate that this "ring rain" drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-size swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour", lead author James O'Donoghue, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. The rate at which the rings might waste away depends not only on how much material is still in the rings, but on other physical forces, Saturn's shifting seasons and the way in which ring material is replenished.

NASA released a pretty incredible GIF of Saturn, showing the transition from what it looks like today to what it will look like towards the end of the rings' lifespan. "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years". Once the particles are energized, they react to Saturn's magnetic field and ride the high-latitude lines of attraction down into the atmosphere.

Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the USA and United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing ring material to rain down onto Saturn at what NASA calls the "worst-case-scenario" rate of the estimates provided by the Voyager data. New research supports the idea that they formed later in the planet's existence and are unlikely to be more than 100 million years old.

By far one of the most distinctive of the solar system's array of planets, Saturn, with its famous rings, has long fascinated astronomers and the public alike.

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What this study indicates is the rings were formed around the planet less than 100 million years ago.

"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", says O'Donoghue.

"If rings are temporary", O'Donoghue said, "perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune".

There are a number of theories which could explain the origin of the rings.

There are still some unanswered questions in the case of the disappearing rings. They analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effects on Saturn's ionosphere.

As seen in the instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii, United States, the ion glows under infrared light if the rain is light. The discs material is forced onto the planet through a combination of being blasted by radiation from the Sun in addition to clouds of plasma from impacts of space rocks. The entire scene is backlit by the Sun, providing striking illumination for the icy particles that make up both the rings and the jets emanating from the south pole of Enceladus, which is about 314 miles (505 km) across.