By far one of the most distinctive of the solar system's array of planets, Saturn, with its famous rings, has long fascinated astronomers and the public alike. Sadly, it's beauty may be fleeting, according to new research.
Sad as this news is, it may finally help answer a longstanding question: Did the planet form with its rings, or did they materialize later? But if you could travel 300 million years into the future, you would need to, because by then, chances are those rings would be gone - and they could disappear even faster. The probe observed ring particles moving quickly into Saturn's equator. But dinosaurs didn't have telescopes, so it didn't really matter.
The Cassini spacecraft captured this stunning view of Saturn and its rings on April 25, 2016.
"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime", O'Donoghue said. "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!" The transient nature of the rings established by the recent studies suggests that they were indeed a later accessory, since their very fragility makes it unlikely they could have the lasted the roughly 4.5 billion years from Saturn's birth until now. Back in 1986, NASA scientists linked these narrow, dark bands to the shape of Saturn's substantial magnetic field.
NASA says the band is 'located where Saturn's magnetic field intersects the orbit of Enceladus, a geologically active moon that is shooting geysers of water ice into space, indicating that some of those particles are raining on Saturn as well'. Water ice particles in the rings range in size from microscopic to the size of boulders according to the video.
This process, in which the water interacts with the planet's ionosphere, can actually be detected from Earth.
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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. The team looked at previous research about the planet's "ring rain" that tracked how much mass was being lost.
Incredibly, the researchers estimate that 1,996kg of water are pouring out from Saturn's rings each second.
"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. Pandora, which is about (52 miles, 84 kilometers) wide, was on the opposite side of the rings from Cassini and Enceladus when the image was taken.
The team would like to see how the ring rain changes with the seasons on Saturn.
The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association.