Wednesday, December 19, 2018

NASA Research Suggests Saturn Rings Are Breaking Down at 'Worst-case-Scenario' Rate

Article Written By: Kyle Tam


   According to new research released by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum rate predicted through data acquired by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.
   Under this model, the rings are expected to last less than 100 million years. This is a significant reduction compared to the original estimated life span of 300 million years as calculated using data from the Cassini spacecraft. In comparison, this is minuscule considering Saturn's age is over 4 billion years.
   According to the research, the rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field. Caught between the pull of the planet's gravity and their orbital velocity wishing to fling them out into space, these particles are easily susceptible to other forces. Sometimes these particles become electrically charged by UV light from the Sun or by plasma clouds from micrometeoroid bombardment within the ring systems. This allows the planet's magnetic field to pull them towards the planet.
   A longstanding mystery is whether Saturn formed with rings or if the planet acquired them later in its life. This new research would suggest the latter scenario, suggesting that these rings are no older than 100 million years.
    “We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime," said James O'Donoghue from NASA Goddard. However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today!” 

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