What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says Neptune? Mercury? Pluto? Nothing exciting. Saturn? RINGS! Everyone knows about the rings. It’s the first planet anyone who gets a telescope for Christmas looks for. It’s the planet that’s hardest to make for a school project, but no one complains because those rings are so darned cool! Bad news, ring fans. NASA just announced that the planet is suffering from something called “ring rain” which is causing the rings to disappear and Saturn will soon be just another Uranus without the funny name jokes.
“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.”
James O’Donoghue, NASA researcher and lead author of a new study published in Icarus, puts the ring rain in terms anyone who has been in a swimming pool or collected rainwater in a can can understand. The ring rain was first detected by the Voyager I and II fly-bys. The Cassini probe, which crashed through Saturn’s rings in a blaze of mission-ending glory last year, found that Saturn’s rings, which surprisingly are made of water ice chunks ranging from microscopic to yards in diameter, are actually dropping onto to the planet’s surface in massive hail-like downpours.
“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.”
While 100 million years seems like a long time, NASA says it’s a blink of an eye in planetary terms. Saturn is estimated to be 4 billion years old and the current condition of the rings suggests they’re in the second half of their lifespan. That means there was most likely a time when Saturn had no rings at all. What’s more, it implies that other planets may have also had rings at one point.
“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!”
Rings around Uranus! (We’ll pause while you insert your favorite joke here.) Thomas Cravens, University of Kansas professor of physics and astronomy and co-author of a second study on rain rings, waxes sentimental on the fact that we should be grateful we’re alive at a time we can enjoy Saturn’s rings … while they last.
“If it’s not being replenished, the rings aren’t going to last — you’ve got a hole in your bucket. Jupiter probably had a ring that evolved into the current wispy ring, and it could be for similar reasons. Rings do come and go. At some point they gradually drain away unless somehow they’re getting new material.”
Is anything replenishing Saturn’s rings? It doesn’t appear that way, and the wispy rings around Jupiter, Neptune and (here it comes again) Uranus show what future astronomers and explorers can expect to see. However, there’s one ray of hope … if Saturn acquired those rings later in life, perhaps Earth can too.
If there’s life on Uranus, they should start writing their revenge jokes now.