Cosmic countdown: Days are numbered for Saturn’s iconic rings, says NASA

The Cassini and Voyager 1 and 2 missions made the observations of Saturn’s so-called ‘ring-rain’ phenomenon on which the estimates were based. The vast majority of Saturn’s orbital circles are made up of chunks of ice ranging from microscopic to boulder-sized.

But the rings are collapsing into Saturn in the form of icy, dusty rain as a result of the planet’s strong gravitational pull.

“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 of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, but add to this the Cassini-spacecraft measured ring-material detected falling into Saturn’s equator, and the rings have less than 100 million years to live. This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.”

NASA’s grim predictions for one of the solar system’s biggest attractions were published in the journal Icarus on Monday.

The current working theory is that Saturn acquired its beautiful rings later in its lifespan of roughly four billion years and that its (relatively) new-found bling ‘only’ showed up about 100 million years ago. Easy come, easy go in the cold void of space, it would seem.

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O’Donoghue also suggested that the disintegration of Saturn’s rings raises a tantalizing question: has mankind “just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune,” planets which today sport mere ringlets.

The rings are kept in place by a combination of factors: Saturn’s gravity pulls them in, but the planet’s spin in combination with the rings’ orbital velocity, tries to fling them back out into space. However, over the course of the next 100 million years, the spectacular icy rings will slowly but surely disappear from the night sky.

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