Saturn is widely considered the jewel of our solar system, with its magnificent icy skirt of dust and rock, commonly known as Saturn’s rings.

Even though we can’t easily see it with the naked eye, Saturn’s rings make it the second most recognizable planet in the solar system. Only Earth outshines it, and only because that’s where we inhabit.

Scientists have discovered over time that all four of the gas giants have rings, but none of the others are as visible, beautiful or obvious as Saturn’s rings.

This marvelous planet is predominantly hydrogen and helium and as such it has a very low density. Only it’s vast size allows it to have enough gravity to retain its numerous moons. Some of which, it has been suggested, may have the necessary conditions and ingredients to support life.

The most recent spacecraft to have visited Saturn is NASA’s Cassini, which made 294 trips around Saturn between 2004 and 2017. This allowed Cassini to learn and reveal many of the true wonders and secrets of this planet and its complicated ring system.

Saturn's Rings

Saturn’s rings are actually billions of pieces of broken-up ice and rock. These pieces range from tiny dust particles to huge chunks, meters across. The rings extend out around 282,000 km from Saturn and are one of the solar system’s most outstanding features. 

There is so much water in the form of ice in Saturn’s rings that the volume is equivalent to half of the entire Antarctic shelf. 

In solar terms, the rings themselves are very young, dating back only about 100 million years ago.

This simply means that the rings have not always existed with the planet, but rather were created when small old icy moons collided and were then further torn apart into tiny pieces and gathered in rings by Saturn’s gravity.

Cassini Photo of Saturn's Rings
Cassini Photo of Saturn's Rings

Why are Saturn's rings disappearing?

The solar system is at risk of losing one of its most magnificent and unique features, Saturn’s ring.

Data collected by Cassini more recently and the Voyager probes years ago show that the particles surrounding Saturn that form the rings are being consumed by Saturn itself.

This is due to a combination of factors including ultraviolet radiation from the sun combined with small meteoroids bombarding the ring particles. Together this electrically charges the water molecules in the rings, a process which has been named “ring rain” by scientists.

The final protagonist in this long running space melodrama is Saturn itself.

Saturn has a very powerful magnetic field that influences these particles. These magnetic fields extend out into space and curve around the planet. These field lines then pull the charged material toward the surface of the planet over time.

The particles ultimately burn up as they enter the upper atmosphere of Saturn, depleting the rings of material slowly over time.

The process is not unlike lightning on Earth, though much larger and slower. Negatively charged electrons in the atmosphere are drawn towards the mostly positively charged ground.

According to Cassini’s data around 10 thousand kilograms of the ring rain are being disintegrated per second. What this means is that Saturn’s rings will completely disappear in another 100 million years.

A slow and gradual death for by a billion cuts for Saturn’s rings. 

The particles that make up Saturn’s ring are caught in an endless battle of finding a balance between the pull of the planet’s gravity-which draws them back into Saturn-and the orbital velocity that throws them outwards into space.

More research is being conducted by scientists to track how the ultraviolet light from the sun charges the ice particles, making them respond to Saturn’s magnetic field.

It is sad to think that this planet’s glorious rings will disappear and no longer be available for very distant generations to appreciate.

However, this slow inevitable process could even be outstripped by another much faster loss to Saturn’s rings.

Many companies are lining up already to start a new period of exploration. Space mining. Long before the rings vanish, they could potentially have been mined by the inhabits of Earth.

This is both horrific and reasonable. It’s tragic to think we could mine such a spectacular, natural wonder of our solar system. And yet the process is happening anyway without us.

Perhaps we shouldn’t let all that precious water be lost for all time to the gravity of Saturn’s hunger.

What are your thoughts on space mining? At this point it seems inevitable, but many would argue that we’ve already done incredible damage to our own planet, should we be allowed to feast our eyes and corporate profits upon the other bodies in our solar system?

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