It’s a little strange to think of Saturn without its rings, but scientists have long believed that the planet’s iconic look was something it picked up in just the past few hundred million years. Further, three new studies digging deep into the rings say that they could disappear in a similar timescale, leaving the planet looking blander than it ever has during humanity’s time on Earth.
The three new studies are all based on data captured by NASA’s Cassini mission. This mission has helped astronomers learn more about the iconic rings that surround the sixth planet from the Sun. A few hundred million years sounds like a lot to us humans, which only live 100 to 120 years if we’re lucky. But, when looking at things on a cosmic timescale, a few hundred million years isn’t long at all.
That’s why it was so surprising for researchers to discover that Saturn’s iconic rings could very well disappear within that timescale. Researchers also examined the “purity of the rings” to see how fast debris can be added and what effect it might have on the rings. Researchers then combined all the data to estimate how much time those rings still have.
They found that Saturn’s rings are almost completely pure ice. Less than a small percentage of the mass is made up by non-icy “pollution”, which is thought to be caused by asteroid debris and micrometeoroids. The calculation of how frequently Saturn’s rings were bombarded is also crucial to determine how old they are. Some scientists believe that Saturn has always had rings.
But the new evidence presented in one study suggests the exact opposite. It suggests that the rings have not been exposed to outside pollution for more than a few hundred million years, which is a very small fraction of Saturn’s believed age of 4. 6 billion years. second study also backed these findings, but it looked at the issue from a slightly different perspective.
The consensus seems to be, however, that this constant bombardment of space rocks against the pure ice Saturn rings will only wear them down with time. Over the next few hundred millions years, debris could batter the rings out of existence. Saturn’s rings may also be affected by the lighter and harder to see rings of Uranus and Neptune in the future.
The new studies are featured in the journals Science Advances and Icarus. Each study offers something to the argument that Saturn’s rings will one day disappear. If true, at least humans can relish the fact that we were able to witness Saturn in all its glory, including its insane number of moons.
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