Saturn is losing its rings at an alarming rate and they may only exist for a brief 100 million more years, Nasa says.
Saturn’s rings are mostly made up of ice, caught in a celestial tug-of-war between the planet’s gravity, pulling the chunks in, and its velocity, throwing them out into space. The planet’s magnetic field is what keeps them centred.
However, the rings are in danger. According to a study published on Monday in the journal Icarus, the rings are being destroyed at the maximum speed of estimates determined decades ago.
“Ring Rain” is a process that drains the ice from the rings of Saturn. The new study finds that the rate at which the rings are being destroyed means ring rain alone could obliterate the bars in a short 292 million years. However, if you combine that with the rate at which chunks from the ring are falling onto the surface of Saturn, there is only 100 million years left.
According to a press release from NASA, scientists are still trying to better understand the rings and how they will weather their slow but inevitable destruction. As the planet rotates around the sun, different parts of the rings are exposed to the sun’s rays. The rays charge the chunks in the ring, which changes how they respond to the planet’s magnetic field.
Saturn is not necessarily unique in its hosting of rings; other planets have had them in the past, or will in the future. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune all have their own rings, just much smaller ones. They may have had bigger ones long before humans existed, that have now died down, thanks to ring rain, parts falling to the surface, or other reasons. The destruction of rings on a planet is part of some planets’ natural cycle.
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