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Saturn is losing the rings that surround the planet at the maximum rate that the Voyager 1 and 2 estimated decades ago. New research by the space agency, the iconic Saturn rings have less than 100 million years to live.
The rings are mostly chunks of water ice ranging in size from microscopic dust grains to boulders several yards (meters) across. The ring is being pulled towards the planet due to gravity.
"We estimate that this 'ring rain' drains a number of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour," said the lead author of the study James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
"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 four billion years," O'Donoghue said.
It has been a point of discussion among the researchers whether Saturn was formed with rings or if it acquired them later in life. The new research hints towards the latter scenario, claiming that they are unlikely to be older than 100 million years.
"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime. 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," O'Donoghue added.
There have been many theories surrounding the rings' origin. If they were formed later, it could be due to the collision between the icy moons surrounding the planet, perhaps their orbit was disturbed by a gravitational tug from a passing comet or an asteroid.
The new research shows glowing bands in Saturn's northern and southern hemispheres where the magnetic field lines enter the planet. The researchers analyzed the light to determine the amount of rain from the ring and its effect on the planet's ionosphere. They found that the amount of rain matches well with the high values derived more than 30 years ago.