Saturn Losing Its Rings at Quicker Rate Than Projected

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Saturn may be known as the Ringed Planet, but those iconic rings are vanishing, and the latest research shows that they are disappearing at an astounding rate.

But scientists aren't sure whether Saturn has always had rings. The paths of falling "ring rains" are influenced by Saturn's magnetic field.

Combining these with observations from Cassini, in which it analysed the material falling from Saturn's rings down to the planet, has allowed astronomers to calculate exactly how fast the rings are disintegrating.

It is hard to imagine a solar system without Saturn's rings, but it turns out they are an ephemeral, if majestic, phenomenon.

"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 planetary scientist James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Some suggest it was formed around 4 billion years ago - at the same time as the planet and the rest of the solar system - but others suggest they surrounded the planet many years after the solar system's birth. When this happens, the particles can feel the pull of Saturn's magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet at Saturn's rings.

Ring rains react with Saturn's ionosphere to increase the longevity of charged particles called trihydrogen cation, H3 ions.

Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the U.S. and United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing ring material to rain down onto Saturn at what NASA calls the "worst-case-scenario" rate of the estimates provided by the Voyager data.

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Their observations revealed glowing bands in Saturn's northern and southern hemispheres where the magnetic field lines that intersect the ring plane enter the planet.

The research has also provided evidence to solve another mystery: when and how Saturn's rings appeared.

Scientists have long wondered if Saturn was formed with the rings or if the planet acquired them later in life.

Stretching some 175,000 miles across, Saturn's bangles easily outshine the dark, fragmented rings feebly encircling Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

There are a number of theories which could explain the origin of the rings. They detected some odd changes in Saturn's ionosphere, density variations in the rings themselves, and three dark bands circling Saturn at mid-northern latitudes. Tiny particles can get electrically charged by ultraviolet light from the Sun or by plasma clouds emanating from micrometeoroid bombardment of the rings.

Researchers determined that complex organic compounds are raining a chemical cocktail of dust grains from the closest ring, D ring, into the upper atmosphere. "We identified Enceladus and the E-ring as a copious source of water as well, based on another narrow dark band in that old Voyager image". The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too.