Saturn is losing its iconic planetary ring, NASA

The rings have less than 100 million years to live.

This image was made as the Cassini spacecraft scanned across Saturn and its rings on April 25, 2016, capturing three sets of red, green and blue images to cover this entire scene showing the planet and the main rings. The images were obtained using Cassini's wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.9 million miles (3 million kilometers) from Saturn and at an elevation of about 30 degrees above the ring plane. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This image was made as the Cassini spacecraft scanned across Saturn and its rings on April 25, 2016, capturing three sets of red, green and blue images to cover this entire scene showing the planet and the main rings. The images were obtained using Cassini's wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.9 million miles (3 million kilometers) from Saturn and at an elevation of about 30 degrees above the ring plane. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

In the latest observation by NASA, scientists confirm that Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate. The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field.

Voyager 1 & 2 observations made decades ago and that has given an estimated loss rate of Saturn’s rings. Scientists warn that the rings could disappear within just 100million years – a very short time in space history.

James O’Donoghue, of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, said, “We estimate that this ‘ring rain’ drains a number of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn’s rings in half an hour.”

An artist's impression of how Saturn may look in the next hundred million years. The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, very slowly followed by the outer rings. Credits: NASA/Cassini/James O'Donoghue
An artist’s impression of how Saturn may look in the next hundred million years. The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, very slowly followed by the outer rings. Credits: NASA/Cassini/James O’Donoghue

“From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300million years. But to add to this, the Cassini spacecraft measured ring material detected falling into Saturn‘s equator, and the rings have less than 100million years to live. This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4billion years.”

Scientists have long wondered if Saturn was formed with the rings or if the planet acquired them later in life. The new research favors the latter scenario, indicating that they are unlikely to be older than 100 million years, as it would take that long for the C-ring to become what it is today assuming it was once as dense as the B-ring.

O’Donoghue said, “We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime. However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today!”