NASA discovers Saturn is losing its rings

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

They then became bound to the planet's magnetic field and pulled into Saturn by gravity.

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.

"What we're seeing is something on the order of about a ton and a half per second", said James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, who reported the conclusions Monday in the journal Icarus.

This alone should mean the rings would disappear 300m years from now but when you account for measurements from the Cassini spacecraft, which showed icy material falling into the planet's equator, this means they have less than 100m years to live. "This is relatively short, compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years".

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Leading up to the September 15, 2017 "Grand Finale" of NASA's Cassini spacecraft, when the mission team plunged the probe down into the planet's atmosphere, the spacecraft was sent on a trajectory to slip between the planet and its rings. The rings are in a delicate balancing act, stuck between Saturn's gravitational pull and the orbital tugs drawing them outward into space.

The rings are depositing so much ice on to the planet that they will essentially destroy themselves. Estimated to be less than 100 million years old, they're a "new" feature of the planet, and they won't be sticking around for long.

"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", says O'Donoghue.

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

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"While [the spectrometer] was created to investigate gases, we were able to measure the ring particles because they hit the spacecraft at such high velocities they vaporized", said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the spectrometer on Cassini's nose and lead author of the study published in the journal Science. The influx of water from the rings, appearing at specific latitudes, washed away the stratospheric haze, making it appear dark in reflected light, producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.

Saturn has been observed by a team at NASA who have been using the Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea in the USA state of Hawaii.

"I don't think it's unreasonable, with all these numbers being so high, that we have to seriously consider that the rings won't be around forever", he said. The rings are made of billions of particles of ice and rock, some boulder-sized, but others microscopically tiny. This balance gets perturbed when ice particles are charged by the Sun's ultraviolet light, causing the particles to plummet down toward the planet along its magnetic field lines, with gravity providing an added boost.

As for the ionosphere changes, those are also tied to the ring rain.

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