Scientists first documented ring rain back in 2013, but new research, led by James O'Donoghue from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, shows the effect is happening much quicker than expected, and by outcome, so is the rate at which Saturn's rings are decaying. The paths of falling "ring rains" are influenced by Saturn's magnetic field.
James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland said that they reckon that the ring rain depletes an amount of water products that could top up an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour.
As you may remember from science class or The Magic School Bus, the rings of Saturn are mostly made up of chunks of water ice, ranging from "microscopic dust grains to boulders several yards (meters) across". Though Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are also banded, Saturn's adornment is by far the most impressive in the solar system.
The solar system's most spectacular feature is disappearing at an "alarming" speed - and will be completely gone within 100 million years, say astronomers. The planet's rings span 170,000 miles across and are bright enough to be visible with a child's telescope.
300,000,000 years, give or take.
Saturn's rings are disappearing.
Scientists have been long contemplating if Saturn was established with the rings or did it acquire later in life.
This suggested electrically-charged ice particles from the rings were flowing down invisible magnetic field lines - and dumping water in the upper atmosphere.
Both O'Donoghue's discoveries and the observations from Cassini likewise help to answer the long-held question of whether Saturn was born with its rings or acquired it sometime down the road.
Bad news for stargazers of the future: Saturn is losing its iconic rings at the maximum estimated rate predicted - and may be gone in the cosmic blink of an eye (or roughly 100 million years). Data the spacecraft beamed back showed that, while that region of space around the planet was fairly devoid of matter, it also revealed that Saturn's gravity was dragging particles from the inner edge of the ring down into the atmosphere. As Saturn is a relatively young planet at 4bn years old, this is a very short lifespan for the rings.
O'Donoghue is the lead author of a study on Saturn's ring rain appearing in the journal Icarus. But others theorize that the rings formed when objects like comets, asteroids or even moons broke apart in orbit around the massive planet. When this happens, the particles can feel the pull of Saturn's magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet at Saturn's rings.
It washed away the stratospheric haze - making it appear dark and producing the narrow dark bands captured in the Voyager images.
The study indicates the rings were formed around the planet less than 100 million years ago, whereas previous research indicated they were some four billion years old.
Based on a new research paper, penned by O'Donoghue and six other researcher from institutions across the United States and United Kingdom, the combined effect of these two mechanisms is causing ring material to rain down onto Saturn at what NASA calls the "worst-case-scenario" rate of the estimates provided by the Voyager data.