An artist’s impression showing how Saturn’s rings might appear in 100 million years or so, based on the amount of ring material raining down into the planet’s atmosphere. Image: NASA/Cassini/James O’Donoghue
Here’s the good news: Saturn’s glorious rings may last as long as 300 million more years. The bad news? They may be gone much sooner than that.
New research confirms that Saturn is losing ring material in a steady “rain” falling into the planet’s upper atmosphere, under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field and gravity, at the maximum rate estimated from the Voyager flybys decades ago.
“We estimate that this ‘ring rain’ drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn’s rings in half an hour,” said James O’Donoghue, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years.”
But if data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft are correct, “the rings have less than 100 million years to live,” O’Donoghue said “This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.”
The new research indicates the rings are unlikely to be older than 100 million ...