If you’ve been following the news lately, then you might’ve heard that Saturn is losing its rings more quickly than astronomers ever realized. But don’t worry, they’re not disappearing in plain sight, and they’re expected to stick around for quite some time to come.
As it would seem, more than ten-thousands kilograms of ring rain is being absorbed into Saturn’s atmosphere every second; this happens because the icy particles that comprise Saturn’s rings are constantly bombarded by ultraviolet light rays from the Sun and plasma clouds from micrometeoroid strikes. Afterward, the charged water molecules that result are then picked up by the planet’s magnetic fields before being pulled in by the planet’s gravity.
Astronomers had known about ring rain since the 1980s when NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft flew past Saturn and captured measurements, but no one knew Saturn’s rings were disappearing at such a rapid rate until a newer study, recently published in the journal Icarus, made us all aware of it.
As it would seem, Saturn’s ring system is depleting from the inside out. Astronomers initially thought that the planet’s ring system would have at least 300 million years to live, but data collected by the late Cassini mission confirms that Saturn’s entire ring system could disappear in as little as 100 million years.
While Saturn won’t have rings forever, we should consider ourselves exceptionally lucky for having the opportunity to observe them up close. After all, they’ve helped astronomers learn a whole lot more about the planet and the solar system.