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Saturn’s rings might only be around a hundred million years old, billions of years younger than some astronomers have suspected, and they might not be the only rings the planet has ever had.

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. [♪ INTRO].

Saturn’s beautiful rings might be the most recognizable thing in all of astronomy, but it won’t be that way forever. In 2018, planetary scientists realized that the rings are disappearing way faster than previously expected.

In fact, some researchers went as far as to say this was the “worst-case scenario.” Now, before the wave of grief overwhelms you, remember that this is astronomy. In this case, “way faster” means that the rings may only be around for another hundred million years or so. What might be even more surprising about this research is that it suggests Saturn’s rings might also only be around a hundred million years old, billions of years younger than some astronomers have suspected.

That complicates our understanding of where the rings might have come from in the first place. And it’s making some people wonder if, maybe, the ring system we see today isn’t the only one Saturn has ever had. Those 2018 results were thanks to NASA’s Cassini mission, which wrapped up in 2017.

As the mission came to an end, scientists sent the spacecraft between Saturn and its rings for the very first time. During these final orbits, Cassini detected material falling from the innermost ring onto the planet’s upper atmosphere, the first direct measurements of what scientists called ring rain. And the data were backed up by astronomers using the giant Keck telescope in Hawaii.

Material falls from the rings for a bunch of reasons, including random collisions between ring particles and particles getting dragged around by Saturn’s magnetic field. We’ve actually seen evidence of this process since the 1980s, so that part of Cassini’s discovery wasn’t surprising. What did catch scientists off guard, though, was how effective ring rain seems to be.

Cassini and Keck’s observations allowed scientists to more accurately calculate the rate Saturn’s rings are losing material, and they found it could be anywhere from around 5,000 to 45,000 kilograms per second. And that has some significant implications. Researchers have used that new number to run time forward and backward in computer simulations, and they’ve found that it would only take around a hundred million years for what we see today to disappear.

But even more significantly, you’d only have to go back about a hundred million years for Saturn’s inner rings to have as much material as the largest one does today. Scientists think that’s a pretty good estimate for how old the ring system might be. It’s a rough guess, but that value matches other lines of evidence, like how clean the rings seem to be.

Either way, what’s clear is that the rings are young compared to the four and a half billion-year age of the solar system, and that kind of throws a wrench in things. See, Saturn’s rings are the outlier in the solar system. Not only are they much larger than those of other outer planets, but they’re also made of nearly pure ice instead of dust and rock.

Whatever formed them needs to account for this purity. And that eliminates many options, since most objects in space contain a mix of ice, rock, and metal. The problem is, some of the best hypotheses that do explain the purity really only make sense if the rings are as old as the solar system.

Like, one idea is that the rings are the icy outer layers of a large moon that was torn apart by Saturn’s gravity. But in order for a moon that size to get close enough to Saturn to be ripped apart, there would have to be a disk of debris around Saturn, and that disk only lasted a short time after the planet formed. Another possibility is that a large asteroid or comet destroyed a medium-sized moon like.

Mimas, which contains very little rock or metal. But again, that kind of big collision was much more common billions of years ago than a hundred million years ago. Researchers aren’t totally out of ideas, though.

One hypothesis that might make more sense is a pair of smaller moons colliding in the recent past, similar to how some scientists think the rings of Uranus formed. The gravity of a passing comet might be enough to nudge one object into the orbit of another, and most of Saturn’s small moons seem to be nearly pure ice, anyway. Unfortunately, the models for this idea aren’t all that supportive so far, so it might be back to the drawing board.

Scientists will likely be researching their hypotheses for a while, but there’s actually another, even bigger question raised by Cassini’s discoveries:. If the rings are so young and short-lived, why are we so lucky that we get to be around when they are? Astronomers hate feeling lucky, because it sometimes means that they’re not looking hard enough for the deeper answer.

So many don’t think this is a coincidence. Like, maybe these rings are recent, but what we see is actually just the latest iteration of a process that has happened multiple times in Saturn’s history. Maybe Saturn has spent the last four billion years collecting and destroying one ring system after another.

If that’s true, it might also mean that the other outer planets have had large rings in the past, too, but they just don’t right now. There are a lot of questions left to answer here, but they’re ones scientists are actively investigating, and they could lead to a new understanding of how ring systems form, and what our solar system looked like not that long ago. Oh, and in case you’re still mourning the future loss of the rings, there is one last bit of good news: Even once the main rings have disappeared,.

Saturn won’t be entirely ringless! The dusty G ring and Phoebe ring are constantly being replenished by debris knocked off nearby moons, and the E ring is composed of ice particles ejected by the geysers on Enceladus. So there still will be rings!

Everything will be alright. And who knows, maybe by then another planet will have some new bling to show off! If you’re interested in learning more about space science and how to understand it, you can check out The Great Courses Plus!

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