Scientists Announced That Saturn Is Losing Its Rings

Image: NASA/JPL

Topped only by Jupiter, Saturn is the second-biggest planet in our Solar System. With a diameter measuring roughly four-and-a-half times greater than Earth’s, Saturn is designated a gas giant. Yet its most notable characteristic is perhaps its ring system, which is the most considerable in the whole Solar System. As research has recently suggested, however, these rings might not last forever.

Image: HO/AFP via Getty Images/Getty Images

Composed of ice and rock particles – some large, others minuscule – Saturn’s ring system is about 170,000 miles in diameter. Its average thickness, on the other hand, measures just approximately 30 feet. So given these specific features, it’s generally been questioned whether or not the system would endure over time.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

In the early 1980s, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes collected information which implied the rings wouldn’t last. Then, a research paper was published in 1986 which predicted how long the rings had left. In 300 million years, the work claimed, the system would be gone. But that was the most optimistic outlook.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At worst, the rings of Saturn could apparently be gone within the next 100 million years or so. This thinking, however, was considered to be rather speculative back in the 1980s. But more recent research headed up by James O’Donoghue of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has suggested that this shorter timeframe might actually be accurate.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

So, the rings may be gone in 100 million years – a blink of an eye in terms of Saturn’s roughly four billion years of existence. This being the case, it might be said that we’re lucky to be alive in this moment. After all, the rings won’t be there to inspire awe forever.

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