Astronomers have long known that Saturn’s iconic rings are gradually dissolving, potentially within 100 million years. Recent research based on data collected by NASA’s Cassini probe indicates this trend is occurring even faster than predicted.
What happens if Saturn loses its rings?
What are the rings made of?
Saturn’s rings are composed of rock, ice and dust – an inhospitable environment for space rocks to travel through and UV radiation from the Sun that causes it to rain down like raindrops every second – approximately 10 tonnes worth.
The rings contain an assortment of gases such as water, ammonia and hydrogen; this material reflects light beautifully to give them their dazzling appearance.
How the rings formed remains unknown, though one possible theory suggests that a large icy object – likely either a moon or comet – wandered too close to Saturn and was pulled apart by its gravity into thousands of pieces, eventually reforming into what we now recognize as rings.
One thing we know for certain about the rings is their age – much older than what was previously assumed. Data from Cassini shows they formed around when the Solar System first formed some 4.5 billion years ago.
This new research relied on observations made by the probe’s spectrometers, which were analysing individual particles’ brightness within Saturn’s rings. Furthermore, scientists observed how much light reflected back by them when passing through a gap between their innermost ring and Saturn itself; it enabled the team to assess how much matter had been lost through such an observation – marking a first ever hole found within these rings allowing the team to measure just how much matter had been shed over time.
As a result of their measurements, the team were able to calculate how much ring material was being lost every second – meaning the iconic rings may be disappearing much quicker than originally predicted by astronomers – in fact they could all vanish in 100 million years!
Saturn would continue its orbit unaffected by any loss of its rings, as any loose particles would simply be incorporated into its huge belt of debris surrounding it. Jupiter already keeps much of this mass from falling away as gravity keeps most in place while magnetic fields act to guide spiralling particles down toward it.
How do they get there?
Saturn’s rings consist of water ice chunks that range in size from microscopic dust grains to boulders several metres in diameter, held together by their own gravitational tug as well as their being too small to be pulled in by Saturn’s gravity like its moons are. While they remain orbiting Saturn due to this effect and being kept there by their own gravity alone, the rings also constantly experience impacts from space; sunlight and plasma clouds from micrometeoroids hit into them, knocking particles around and creating electrical charges within them that helps them sense Saturn’s magnetic field lines in which they follow and end up depositing themselves back onto Saturn where they belong – eventually ending up as part of its upper atmosphere.
Scientists have known about Saturn’s “ring rain” since NASA’s Voyager probes first gathered information in the 1980s. But as scientists gain more knowledge about how its rings function, their understanding has expanded dramatically; new studies indicate that its rainstorm is happening much quicker than previously anticipated.
James O’Donoghue of Astronomer James O’Donoghue led this latest research on Saturn’s rings using a model to estimate their rate of disintegration, using Voyager data as an estimate. However, it turned out to be four times faster than originally projected due to how material is dispersing into charged water molecules that interact with Saturn’s magnetic field and ultimately fall towards the planet where they eventually get burned up in its atmosphere.
17 out of 390 simulations conducted by the team involved placing an object roughly the size and composition of one of Saturn’s rings at 43 Saturn radii out from Titan and Iapetus, near enough for its gravity to cause it to fracture, yet far enough that neither moon collides with it or gets expelled altogether. Other simulations featured this same scenario, except that instead of colliding directly into Saturn it grazed against it before becoming part of an extensive asteroid belt composed mainly of too-big-for-lifeforms.
What happens to them?
Astronomers have long observed that Saturn is rapidly losing its iconic rings faster than expected. As predicted, its sixth planet from the Sun has been continuously losing pieces of its iconic system of rocks and water ice that make up its iconic rings, known as ring rain – raining onto its upper atmosphere every 30 minutes with an equivalent amount to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every single day! Scientists predict the iconic accessories may disappear within 100 million to 300 million years!
Ring Rain occurs when Saturn’s rings collide with electrically charged gases in its atmosphere – known as its ionosphere – which cause collisions among their particles, breaking them apart into charged water molecules that fall toward Saturn’s surface and burn up in its atmosphere, giving off infrared light visible by astronomers and making the rings glow with color.
Saturn’s rings remain an ongoing topic of contention and their origin remains elusive, although one theory holds that they could be remnants of moons that strayed too close and were disassembled by Saturn’s gravity. Other scientists have proposed that their formation is the result of an unnamed asteroid or comet colliding with it and creating massive effects such as massive storms that result in devastating collisions involving Saturn.
Rings form during the time when dinosaurs roamed Earth and will likely dissipate within several hundred million years due to current rates of erosion.
Saturn’s rings won’t have much of an effect when they finally dissipate; their material makes up only a tiny percentage of its total mass. Instead, their disappearance will have more of an impactful result for Saturn’s moons’ orbital speeds but not its rotation or spin rate.
How long do they last?
Astronomers have known since the 1980s that Saturn’s iconic rings are disintegrating at an unexpectedly rapid rate, yet three new studies using data collected during NASA’s Cassini mission from 2004 to 2017 has provided greater understanding into this process and its rate.
These studies explore the composition and erosion process of Saturn’s rings as well as what’s happening within Saturn where “ring rain” drains away tons of material every second.
The rings of Saturn are almost entirely composed of ice, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll survive indefinitely. Their fragile surface is constantly exposed to micrometeoroids, asteroid fragments and even remnants from dwarf planets that once orbited Saturn; all this debris keeps getting smaller and thinner over time, impacting their strength as rings themselves shrink in thickness.
Researchers used an instrument on Cassini spacecraft to study dust particles flying around Saturn. They observed how some became electrically charged due to sunlight or collisions with micrometeoroids; once electrified, these dust specks aligned with magnetic field lines and became drawn into Saturn’s atmosphere.
One reason the rings are disintegrating quickly is due to this trend; indeed, if it continues for another 100 million years they could all but vanish completely – though that might seem far off, on an intergalactic scale this timeframe represents only an instant in time.
Scientists remain uncertain how Saturn’s rings formed. While it could have begun when two small moons with similar orbits collided, more likely their formation was caused by gravitational resonance with larger moons such as Titan and Iapetus.
No matter their shape or size, solar system rings serve as a reminder that our world is filled with stunning beauty – both big and small – that could remain with us for quite some time to come. JWST and Hawaii’s Keck Observatory continue to monitor how these rings change with time.