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Saturn's rings could vanish much sooner than expected

A new NASA study shows the planet's iconic rings are circling the cosmic drain.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured a series of Saturn images in 2016. This mosaic shows everything from the expansive rings to the hexagonal jet stream at the north pole. 
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

One day, Saturn may be known as the "ringless planet." A new NASA-led study shows Saturn's rings are disappearing at a startling rate. 

Saturn's rings mainly consist of water ice with some rock and dust mixed in. NASA's Voyager mission visited the planet in the early 1980s. Its studies hinted at a phenomenon called "ring rain."

"The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field," says NASA.

Scientists estimate the rings could be gone in 300 million years, but they could vanish even faster. NASA's Cassini mission made more detailed observations of ring rain, and that data indicates the rings could disappear in just 100 million years. That's a blink of an eye compared to Saturn's age of over 4 billion years.

"We estimate that this 'ring rain' drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour," says NASA planetary scientist James O'Donoghue. The researchers published their findings in the journal Icarus on Monday. 

Scientists have long discussed the possible origin of the Saturn ring system, which may have formed from shattered pieces of small moons, comets or asteroids. The NASA team now estimates the rings are only about 100 million years old. 

There are still some unanswered questions in the case of the disappearing rings. The NASA team is curious about how Saturn's 29.4-year orbit around the sun and its shifting seasons affect the quantity of ring rain. The amount could change depending on how much sunlight exposure the planet receives. 

"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime," says O'Donoghue. Be sure to enjoy the view while it lasts. 

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