NASA says Saturn's rings are disappearing at 'alarming speed'

A black and white image of Saturn as well as its moons Enceladus and Pandora

The origins of Saturn's rings have long puzzled scientists, who are still unsure if the planet was formed with the rings or if it acquired them at a later stage. It is created in abundance when minuscule, charged particles escape Saturn's C-ring, spiral into the planet along magnetic field lines and collide with atmospheric atoms in what is called ring rain. The rate at which the rings might waste away depends not only on how much material is still in the rings, but on other physical forces, Saturn's shifting seasons and the way in which ring material is replenished.

'It is possible, in the age of the dinosaurs, that Saturn's rings were even larger and brighter than we see them today.

Saturn could be losing its iconic rings as an Olympic swimming pool amount of water drains from them every half an hour.

This revelation, along with information from Cassini spacecraft research, led scientists to estimate that the rings will cease to exist in fewer than 100 million years - a short time relative to Saturn's 4-billion-year existence, O'Donoghue says. Ring particles are caught in a balancing act between the pull of Saturn's gravity, which wants to draw them back into the planet, and their orbital velocity, which wants to fling them outward into space.

The rings are being pulled apart by Saturn's gravity and onto the planet's surface as deluges of "ring rain", according to new NASA research.

If O'Donoghue is right about the 100 million-year timeline, humanity should be grateful that we came along now, in time to see the rings before they're gone.

Aside from determining the lifespan of the planetary rings, the latest findings allowed researchers to make an assumption on when Saturn's rings were formed. NASA's Cassini mission made more detailed observations of ring rain, and that data indicates the rings could disappear in just 100 million years. While Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus do have rings too, Saturn's appear to be more majestic.

"The rings of Saturn haven't been around forever", he said.

There are still some unanswered questions in the case of the disappearing rings.

The icy dust then rains into Saturn before disintegrating.

Dr James O'Donoghue, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues have used instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii to discover the phenomenon. "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 entire scene is backlit by the Sun, providing striking illumination for the icy particles that make up both the rings and the jets emanating from the south pole of Enceladus, which is about 314 miles (505 km) across. Saturn takes 29.4-years to complete an orbit and experiencing various level of sun's radiation during that turn.

At any given moment, the majority of the water ice grains that form Saturn's rings maintain a stable trajectory.

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