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Saturn's rings disappear – something happened here



If you select Saturn from a lineup, you'll probably recognize him by his iconic rings. They are the largest and brightest rings in our solar system. Extension over 280,000 km from the planet; wide enough to fit 6 Earths in a row. But Saturn does not always look that way. Because his rings disappear.

That's right, Saturn loses his rings! And fast. Even much faster than scientists had thought at first. At the moment it is raining 10,000 kilograms of ring rain per second on Saturn. Fast enough to fill an Olympic pool in half an hour.

This rain is actually the crumbled remains of Saturn's rings. Saturn's rings are mostly ice and boulders. Which are under constant attack: some by UV radiation from the sun and others by small meteoroids.

In these collisions, the ice particles evaporate to form charged water molecules that interact with the magnetic field of Saturn. eventually fall in the direction of Saturn, where they burn in the atmosphere.

We have known since the 1

980s of ring-rain that NASA's Voyager mission first discovered mysterious, dark bands that turned out to be ring-rain, stuck in the magnetic fields of Saturn. At the time, researchers estimated that the rings would completely drain in 300 million years. However, observations from NASA's previous Cassini probe give a darker prognosis. Before Saturn's death in 2017, Cassini managed to better understand the amount of ring dust that rains on Saturn's equator.

And discovered that it is raining more heavily than previously thought. With these clearer observations, the scientists calculated that the rings had only 100 million years to live. It's hard to imagine a ringless Saturn.

But the planet was as naked as Earth during its entire existence. While Saturn was founded some 4.5 billion years ago, studies indicate that the rings are only 100 to 200 million years old. This is younger than some dinosaurs.

So, if you think about it, we're pretty happy to have seen these great rings. Really lucky. Because the efforts to study these rings have led to other discoveries.

When Cassini explored Saturn's moon Enceladus, for example, he discovered a trail of ice and gas that led back to the Saturn E-ring. Enceladus is the whitest and most reflective moon in our solar system.

By studying the ring more closely, scientists now know why. It turns out that the moon is constantly emitting gas and dust. Part of it ends up in outer space and in the E-ring, while the rest snows back to the lunar surface, producing a blinding white frost.

So who knows which other discoveries could hide in the rings? At least it's clear that we should look better while we still can.


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