A new NASA study found that the iconic rings are disappearing even faster than we thought. In just a few short hundreds of millions of years, the majestic rings of Saturn will be gone.
Saturn’s rings are not the solid structures they may appear to be from afar. Instead, they’re made of dust, gas, ice, and small rocks. The different components of the rings behave in different ways because of their mass, structural stability, and electric charge. Consider the ice, for instance, which gets pulled around by Saturn’s magnetic field. That doesn’t happen to the rocks or dust that make up the rest of the rings.
Over time, that ice tends to fall into the planet. It’s a phenomenon astronomers have called “ring rain.” Scientists have suspected this ring rain ever since the first photos from the Voyager probes in the 1980s hinted at the process. In recent years, the Cassini mission confirmed that ring rain was indeed real, and new observations from the Keck telescope in Hawaii are starting to tell us just how much rain there is.
There’s a lot, it turns out—around 4,000 pounds per second, or enough to fill an entire Olympic swimming pool in half an hour. According to NASA, at that rate the entire inner rings will be gone in about 300 million years.