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Saturn's rings appear to be disappearing

NASA's Cassini mission has been providing one of the most comprehensive looks at Saturn. Now researchers believe the planet's rings could vanish.
Saturn's rings appear to be disappearing
Posted at 7:08 PM, May 24, 2023

The planet in our solar system famed for its rings of ice is changing in a curious way, scientists say. 

A new analysis of data from NASA's Cassini mission, from when it orbited Saturn between 2004 and 2017, shows the giant planet made up of gas may lose its rings at some point in the future. 

The new data from Cassini was published in mid-May in the journal Icarus, and outlines support for the theory that the rings actually formed after the planet Saturn itself formed. 

Scientists have debated the origin and age of Saturn's rings for quite some time. 

lead author on the study, Richard Durisen, said, "Our inescapable conclusion is that Saturn's rings must be relatively young by astronomical standards, just a few hundred million years old."

Durisen is a professor emeritus of astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington.

He says by examining the gas giant's satellite system, one can find clues about something significant that occurred there in the last few hundred million years. 

According to Durisen, "If Saturn's rings are not as old as the planet, that means something happened in order to form their incredible structure, and that is very exciting to study."

Scientists believe our solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago. And astronomers and researchers agree it is possible Saturn's icy rings are much younger than we had previously thought. 

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The paper published in Icarus points to data researchers say has provided important measurements which have helped to determine what they call the "absolute age" of Saturn's rings. It's believed that the "rings are losing mass to the planet at a prodigious rate," the study authors wrote. 

Meteoroid impacts have also contributed to changes, including what has been described as space objects "polluting the rings," and "micrometeoroid impacts."

The paper shows how the gas giant's rings face constant hits by "extrinsic micrometeoroids."

The Planetary Society says just four spacecraft have ever arrived to the space around Saturn, calling the Cassini mission the one that gave the most comprehensive look at the planet. 

Scientists believe that studying Saturn gives us a better look at how the solar system was formed and how it has evolved.

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