Their origins remain controversial, but now they are disappearing.
"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", NASA's James O'Donoghue, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
Combining these with observations from Cassini, in which it analysed the material falling from Saturn's rings down to the planet, has allowed astronomers to calculate exactly how fast the rings are disintegrating. The team at NASA is looking to see how the ring rain will change with the seasons on Saturn.
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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 with Saturn's age of over four billion years".
The culprit: "ring rain", a phenomenon in which particles and gases fall into the planet's atmosphere. "In some parts of the rings, once charged, the balance of forces on these tiny particles changes dramatically, and Saturn's gravity pulls them in along the magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere".
Scientists had previously found Saturn's rings were losing mass from data sent back from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.
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Those spacecraft observed suspicious variations in both the electrical charge in Saturn's ionosphere and the thickness of its rings, as well as dark-colored bands running around the planet at higher latitudes. If it's the former, the rings formed about 4.4 billion years ago, but if it's the latter, they only formed about 100 million years ago, likely the effect of colliding moons in orbit around Saturn, according to research published in 2016.
The grains of ice and dust that form Saturn's rings are constantly pulled into the gas giant's body by gravity.
"If rings are temporary", O'Donoghue said, "perhaps we just missed out on seeing giant ring systems of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune". They detected some unusual changes in Saturn's ionosphere, density variations in the rings themselves, and three dark bands circling Saturn at mid-northern latitudes.
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"It's not out of the question, I would say, that the rings might degrade on this kind of time scale", said Jeff Cuzzi of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who was not involved in the research.
As seen in the instruments attached to the Keck telescope in Hawaii, United States, the ion glows under infrared light if the rain is light. Solar radiation and clouds of plasma from space rock impacts continuously bombard the water ice and other particles that make up the rings. "We identified Enceladus and the E-ring as a copious source of water as well, based on another narrow dark band in that old Voyager image". As the planet progresses in its 29.4-year orbit, the rings are exposed to the Sun to varying degrees.
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