Of all the planets in our solar system, Saturn is perhaps the most beautiful. Up close, the rings around the planet shimmer in soft pink, gray, and brown. It is difficult to imagine Saturn without them. But Saturn’s rings are not a permanent feature. In fact, they are on their way to disappearing.
All gaseous planets in the solar system show a system of rings, but this was not discovered until the end of the 20th century. The most striking of all is Saturn’s system of rings and was observed much earlier. In 1610, Galileo Galilei looked at Saturn and saw three things instead of one. In astonishment, Galileo believed that the planet had two handles (ansae). When he looked again two years later, they were gone, and then reappeared two years later, clearer than ever. Half a century later, thanks to improved telescope technology, Christian Huygens was the first to confirm in 1655 that this vessel was in fact a ring around the planet. Huygens described a flat, thin ring that never touched the planet.
Giovanni Cassini showed in 1675 that the ring was in fact composed of two rings, between which there was a separation later called the Cassini separation. In 1858, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated that rings must contain grains and bits of rock.
We’re looking at Saturn’s rings at their height
The latest ideas suggest that it is a system consisting of countless discrete micro-rings with narrow, empty sections between these rings. The rings are on average about 20 meters thick and consist of ice particles and meteorite dust. Ice and rock masses have a different shape and diameter, but in appearance the rings resemble large round plates. The entire system is concentric, which is caused by the many moons of Saturn, which are subject to and cause gravitational fluctuations.
The rings around Saturn lose material every year. Incoming micro-meteoroids and the sun’s radiation disrupt the dusty small portions of the ring material, electrifying them. The particles shift suddenly, ending up in Saturn’s magnetic field lines. When they get very close to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere, gravity pulls them inward and they evaporate into the planet’s clouds.
Astronomers call this phenomenon “annular rain,” and over time this phenomenon will remove the distinct element that makes Saturn so special to us until there is nothing left. In other words, we’re looking at Saturn’s rings at their zenith, a beautiful spectacle that appears immutable from our perspective, but is ephemeral on a wide range of things.
We still have 300 million years old
It might be helpful to know that the process will take some time: scientists estimate that the rings will be completely gone in about 300 million years. So we still have plenty of time to admire and study the beauty of Saturn’s rings. Because while astronomers realize that the rings are disappearing, they still don’t know everything about them, including how Saturn got them in the first place.
We got really close to Saturn’s rings for the first time in the early 1980s, when NASA’s Voyager spacecraft made a grand tour of the exoplanets. At the time, scientists suspected that the rings might have formed near Saturn about 4.6 billion years ago, when the solar system was young and branching. With rocky bodies flying all over the place, a new planet could easily have picked up a few of them, swung them around their center and flattened them by gravity.
Saturn had no rings when dinosaurs roamed the Earth
but the flew by From Voyager suggested a different story. Observations captured the rings in more detail than ever before, revealing that the system didn’t have as much mass as the researchers expected, meaning the rings couldn’t be billions of years old. The rings should have been much younger, perhaps only 10 to 100 million years old. Saturn’s ring system looked as old as the solar system itself; Now it looks like the rings didn’t even exist when dinosaurs started roaming the Earth. The solar system then settled, so where would Saturn get the raw material for the rings?
In 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft bypassed Saturn’s rings, sending as much information home as possible before the probe destroyed itself in the planet’s atmosphere. Recent measurements confirmed what the Voyager missions had observed, that the rings weren’t massive enough to be old.
We still don’t know how the rings were formed
The scientific community has not yet come to a consensus on the origin story of Saturn’s rings. But if the rings were really cosmologically small, scientists say they likely formed when one of Saturn’s moons, which itself was very old, approached and was ripped to shreds. Maybe this moon wasn’t even a big issue. Our moon can be used to make thousands of ring systems like Saturn.
As Cassini dived between Saturn and the rings, we were able to measure the amount of ring material flowing toward the planet. The Voyager mission has already seen some evidence of ring material leaking to Saturn, but Cassini has allowed astronomers to really investigate the phenomenon and provide their best estimates of how long the rings will last.
Rings around Mars on the way
Another 300 million years is good. But this does not mean that perhaps one day, after the rings of Saturn disappear, the universe can give the planet a new combination. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune have rings. They are mysterious things, but they are there, and they may have been more massive since long ago. By the way, cosmic forces are already at work with the next addition of the solar system. Somewhere between 20 million and 80 million years ago, Phobos, a small moon of Mars, will likely disintegrate. The pieces will orbit the red planet and settle in rings around Mars.
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