With its vast system of rings, Saturn is among the most beautiful planets in the Solar System. Unfortunately, according to new research, beauty could be fleeting. The rings of Saturn are dissolving faster than scientists expected, according to the study, and they could have disappeared between 100 million and 300 million years, a cosmological beating of eyelashes.
The rings of Saturn are mainly composed of ice water, but new research published in the journal Icarus shows that the rings are attacked by the gravity of the planet and the magnetic field, triggering a phenomenon known as "pouring rain". Scientists have documented ring rain for the first time in 2013 But new research, led by James O'Donoghue from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shows that the effect is happening much faster than expected and, consequently, also the speed with which the rings of Saturn are decaying.
Scientists are not entirely sure if Saturn was born with his beautiful halo, or if he acquired his ring system later in life. If it is the first, the rings were formed about 4.4 billion years ago, but if it is the last one, they were formed only about 100 million years ago, probably the consequence of a collision of moons in orbit around to Saturn, according to research published in 2016. If the recent scenario of the formations is true, which means that Saturn had no rings when the giant sauropod dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the Jurassic. But the dinosaurs did not have telescopes, so it did not really matter. Fortunately, humans have telescopes at a time when Saturn has its glorious rings, so I suppose we're lucky.
"We are fortunate to be around to see the ring system of Saturn, which seems to be in the middle of his life," said O & # 39; Donoghue in a statement. "However, if the rings are temporary, perhaps we have simply lost ourselves in seeing the gigantic ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which today have only small curls".
Anyhoo, when Voyager's explorations visited Saturn several decades ago, took over the upper atmosphere of the gaseous gas, or ionosphere, along with variations in density in its rings, and three dark and narrow bands surrounding the northern latitudes of the planet. In 1986, NASA scientists connected these narrow dark bands to the shape of Saturn's consistent magnetic field. These seemingly unrelated observations led to the theory that electrically charged particles from Saturn's rings fluctuated along the magnetic field lines, a process that caused water to be poured from its rings onto its ionosphere, creating the narrow bands seen in the images. of the Voyager.
From the Earth, the rings of Saturn seem quiet, but fragments of water ice – ranging from the size of microscopic grains of dust to giant boulders – are captured in a giant tug of war game. The rings are in a delicate act of balance, locked between the gravitational attraction of Saturn and the orbital tugs that drag them out into space. This equilibrium is disturbed when the ice particles are charged by the ultraviolet light of the Sun, causing particles to precipitate towards the planet along its magnetic field lines, with gravity providing an additional impulse.
This process, in which water interacts with the planet's ionosphere, can actually be detected by the Earth. For the new study, O & # 39; Donoghue used the Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to detect and measure these liquid-ionosphere chemical interactions. His team compared the light in the north and south latitudes of the planet to determine the amount of rain that fell from the rings, among other observations.
Incredibly, the researchers estimate that 4,400 pounds of water (10,000 kilograms) are poured from the rings of Saturn every second. At that rate of loss, the rings should have disappeared in about 292 million years.
O & # 39; Donoghue says this amount of rain could fill an Olympic-sized pool in just half an hour. Other evidence collected by the Cassini probe, however, suggests an expiration date earlier. The Cassini spacecraft measured the material of the ring by falling into Saturn's equator at a rate that suggests "the rings have less than 100 million years of life," said O & # 39; Donoghue in the statement, adding : "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years."
This latest study, I must say, is really depressing me. It is sad to think of Saturn without its rings, even if millions of years have passed. Our solar system will be considerably less spectacular than it is today when this happens. But who knows, maybe another planet will get its own ringtone at that time.