Saturn's iconic rings will one day be no more. The ring formation around the sixth planet from the sun is experiencing "ring drain," says James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The planet's magnetic field is causing the rings to be pulled inward by gravity, creating a dusty rain of ice particles. Every half hour, enough water is drained from the rings to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, O'Donoghue said in a NASA press release.
This revelation, along with information from Cassini spacecraft research, led scientists to estimate that the rings will cease to exist in fewer than 100 million years — a short time relative to Saturn's 4-billion-year existence, O'Donoghue says.
Saturn's rings are made of chunks of water ice varying in size — some are microscopic while others are several yards wide. The particles are balanced between Saturn's gravity and their orbital velocity, creating rings, per NASA.
But scientists aren't sure whether Saturn has always had rings. New research supports the idea that they formed later in the planet's existence and are unlikely to be more than 100 million years old. If this is the case, the rings may have formed when the gravitational pull from a comet or asteroid caused small, icy moons that were orbiting the planet to collide, says NASA.
O'Donoghue notes that humans are lucky to be around during the lifetime of Saturn's ring system, but that, if rings are temporary, we may have missed out on seeing the beauty of ring formations around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, too. Taylor Watson