Saturn is losing its rings

Paige Schneider, Staff Reporter

The second largest gas giant in our solar system is about 95 times more massive than earth with a 36,184-mile radius. Its days are around ten and a half hours, and its ‘year’ is 29 of our own. The gas giant is composed of helium and hydrogen and has 62 confirmed moons. Despite all of these mind-blowing facts, the planet’s rings are what makes it so remarkable. And it’s losing them. The rings, which are made from small rocks, dust and ice particles, are being pulled towards Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles. “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. That’s 1,320,506 gallons of water an hour.

If the rings continue ‘raining down’ at this rate, the entire ring system, which is 175,000 miles long, will be completely gone in 300 million years. Add that to the amount of ring-material detected falling into Saturn’s equator by the Cassini-spacecraft, the rings only have 100 million years to live. 100 million years may not seem like a short amount of time, but the rings are disappearing at the maximum rate estimated from Voyage 1 & 2 observations made decades ago. 100 million years is nothing compared to Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years.

Scientists don’t know if Saturn was formed with the rings or if it acquired them later in life, though the latter is more likely. The rings are estimated to be older than 100 million years, and it is believed they formed when small, icy moons in Saturn’s orbit collided. “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!” said O’Donoghue. Although this idea is exciting, ‘Saturn wouldn’t be Saturn without the rings,’ says GHS art teacher, Ryan Bosche.