Saturn is losing its rings at a "worst-case-scenario" rate according to new research by NASA.
The gas giant’s iconic rings are being pulled into the planet by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of the planet’s magnetic field.
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, said James O’Donoghue of NASA.
From this alone, the entire ring system will be gone in 300 million years, Mr O’Donoghue added, but noted that actually the situation was far more dire.
Measurements of ring-material detected falling into Saturn’s equator by the Cassini spacecraft suggest that the rings actually have less than 100 million years to live.
This is relatively short, compared to Saturn’s age of over four billion years, stated Mr O’Donoghue, who is the lead author of the study on Saturn’s ring rain.
The origins of Saturn’s rings have long puzzled scientists, who are still unsure if the planet was formed with the rings or if it acquired them at a later stage.
According to the findings of the new research, it is now considered to be more likely that it acquired the rings after it formed.
The study suggests Saturn’s rings are unlikely to be older than 100 million years.
We are lucky to be around to see Saturn’s ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime.
However, if rings are temporary, perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, which have only thin ringlets today! added Mr O’Donoghue.
There are a number of theories which could explain the origin of the rings.
Among the most prominent is the suggestion that they came about when small icy moons collided, perhaps after their orbits were disturbed by a passing asteroid or comet.