Saturn’s rings are iconic parts of our solar system. Although the other gas giants, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, also have rings, Saturn’s are by far the most recognizable and well-known. They have been depicted throughout science fiction literature and movies. However, NASA scientists now have discovered that the planet’s rings may disappear within 100 million years.
According to James O’Donoghue, the lead author of the study that proposed the impending loss of Saturn’s rings, the ice that makes up the planet’s rings is being gradually tugged to the center of the planet by gravity. The researcher stated that this would lead to the destruction of the rings within 300 million years. However, the Cassini space probe discovered that debris from the rings is falling directly onto the equator at a fast rate, therefore causing the disappearance to occur within 100 million years.
Saturn has been around for roughly four billion years. In some time after this, rings formed of pieces of ice that ranged widely in size around it. This study suggests that the rings were in fact formed less than 100 million years ago and are in fact in the middle of their lifetime. This would make modern humanity very fortunate to observe the life of Saturn’s rings as this period is only a tiny sliver in Saturn’s history. It also suggests that the other gas giants either once had enormous ring systems or are in the process of forming them currently.
The data used by this study was collected by the Cassini spacecraft that had monitored Saturn for 20 years. The probe discovered that in Saturn’s atmosphere, which stretches to the rings, there was a large amount of dust being released by Saturn’s inner ring towards its atmosphere. Using this data, the probe estimated that 10,000 kilograms of water ice debris was being released by the rings every second, which is a rate much higher than previously expected. Assuming that the rings will not be somehow replenished, this means that the rings would disappear within 100 million years.