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Science Says Saturn Is Losing Its Rings At A Fast Rate

The universe is an amazing place. The stars above us hold the secrets that may be the key to humanity living on other worlds. Despite how old our world’s space agencies are, there is still very little we know about the ‘Great Beyond.’ But what we do know is quite amazing.

One of the most interesting things is what’s currently going on with the planet known as Saturn.

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Losing Its Rings

Common among astronomers and those in similar professions, many scientists have been aware of something interesting about the sixth’s planet’s rings. The rings are wide enough that six Earth in a row can be placed between its inner- and outermost edge, an estimated 280,000km from the planet’s atmosphere.

The rings, comprised mostly of ice and space dust, have been slowly disappearing. More than 10,000 kilograms of “ring rain” have been falling to Saturn every second.

How it happens

The “rain” is created when the ice is broken up by UV radiation or meteoroids hit both the ice and rock suspended in Saturn’s rings. The ice vaporizes when the collisions take place, creating water droplets so heavy that they fall towards the planet and burn up in the atmosphere.

Since the 1980s, thanks to NASA’s Voyager mission, we’ve known about this phenomenon. Estimates back then stated these rings would disappear after 300 million years. But new data suggest that the rings may have as few as 100 million years left.

Astronomy has been one of my favorite subjects since I was a child, so I can only imagine how the skies would look without Saturn’s rings. Scientists have determined the age of Saturn to be about 4.5 billion years ago. In contrast, 100 to 200 million years is the estimated age of the rings, meaning Earth’s dinosaurs came around long before they did.

Explorations with Cassini

NASA’s Cassini space probe was sent out to research and report back on the Saturnian moon Enceladus. After lengthy observation using Cassini, the space agency determined it blinding white surface was the result of ice that rained back onto its surface.

The moon was found to expel gas and dust into the ‘E’ ring, with some of it occasionally coming back towards the planet.

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Other Facts about Saturn

Saturn was first discovered by astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1670. It was 45 years later in 1655 that Dutch astronomer Christiaan Hugens determined the ‘arm-shaped protusions’ on either side was actually from a ring.

The rings themselves are as fascinating as the planet. It’s largest is more than 7,000 the diameter of the planet, while those closest to it are only about 30 feet thick. Some of the debris can reach stacked heights of 2 miles tall.

What About its Moons?

The planet has a whopping 62 moons, some of which are responsible for keeping the rings where they are. Its largest natural satellite is known as Titan and is only slightly larger than the first planet in our system, Mercury.

Some moons, like Pan and Atlas have disc-like shapes to them, while Iapetus (sometimes spelled Japetus) is covered by snow on its bright side and coal on its dark side. During its mission, the Cassini space probe gathered evidence of “ice volcanoes” as the southern pole of the moon Enceladus.

The moons known as Prometheus and Pandora are the ones whose gravity is responsible for being “shepherds” of the rings.

Planet’s Impact on the System

Saturn’s gravity is so great it stands only behind Jupiter in power. Thanks to that power, it is possible this body was responsible for slingshotting Neptune and Uranus to the outermost reaches of our solar system.

That same gravity, along with that of gas giant Jupiter, may be responsible for the debris that bombarded the inner planets early in our system’s history.

Saturn is of even more importance to Earth than at first glance. Scientists in 2017 theorized that the sixth planet stand guard for dangerous object headed towards Earth, steering most of them away.

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The Huygens Probe and Cassini’s Final Mission

Cassini carried with it the Huygens Probe, which successfully penetrated the atmosphere of and landed on Titan. Cassini made it final approach toward’s Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017 in order to prevent possible pollution of a habitable moon.

There are many things we know about Saturn now, along with its ice rings. If the rings of Saturn eventually become water vapor that fall towards the planet, is it possible that Earth somewhere along the line had its own rings that rained liquid water on its surface?

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