Saturn

Photo by NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team. Saturn from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, taken on July 4, 2020, when the opulent giant world was 1350 million kilometers from Earth.

We have dust storms across desert areas quite frequently, but if we lived on Saturn we would be experiencing a constant dusty rain. NASA research confirms that Saturn is losing its rings at a rate that seems to be increasing with time. The rings are formed from an icy dust that orbits the planet. There is a lot of speculation among the scientific community as to why some planets have rings and others only have moons.

It was originally thought that the older planets had moons because gravity pulled the dust that formed the rings together in one location in orbit to form a moon over the course of millions of years. The observation of Saturn and its rings by Voyager 1 and 2 have challenged that theory. The rings of Saturn have been observed falling from Saturn’s sky as a dusty, icy rain. This rain is falling at a rate that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in half an hour.

There are three factors impacting the rings of Saturn; the first is the gravity of Saturn slowly pulling the rings to the ground around the equator. The measured ring-rainfall rate gives a prediction that Saturn will lose its rings in about 300 million years, but this is only from the amount of dust reaching the surface of the planet.

The second factor is the electromagnetic field of Saturn. The interaction between the electromagnetic field and the particles in the rings cause decay in the rings. Electromagnetic fields are a natural part of any planet with a magnetic core. This basically means that Saturn, like Earth, has a north and south magnetic pole. Just like your refrigerator magnets have two poles, if they were left free to rotate, their poles would align with the earth’s magnetic field. This is basically how a compass works. This magnetic field is caused by metal beneath the planet’s surface which has been magnetized by interaction with solar radiation, creating a giant magnet.

Magnetic fields have strange effects on dust, especially dust made from metal. If you take a magnet and place it under a piece of cardboard, then put iron shavings on the cardboard, you will get a ring-like pattern that follows the magnetic field. Saturn’s magnetic field is doing the same thing to metallic particles in the rings.

The third factor impacting the rings of Saturn is the Sun. As the solar flare activity on the Sun increases, it interacts with the magnetic fields of the planets surrounding it. We see this interaction on Earth as a phenomenon called the Northern Lights. When a solar flare blasts electromagnetic energy in the direction of Earth, it disrupts the magnetic field in a way that causes gasses in the upper atmosphere to ignite. This same effect is burning the rings around Saturn.

Between the three factors impacting Saturn’s rings, scientists predict that it will be less than 100 million years before the rings are completely absorbed by the planet through dusty rain, or burned by the interaction between the Sun and Saturn’s magnetosphere. I’m not sure which is worse, the fact that Saturn will someday lose its iconic rings, or that Saturn will never be inhabitable because of the constant dusty rain falling to the surface. Maybe 100 million years from now we can finally visit the surface of Saturn, but until then, let’s enjoy the view.

To learn more about Saturn and its dusty rain, you can visit https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/794/nasa-research-reveals-saturn-is-losing-its-rings-at-worst-case-scenario-rate/, and be glad that we were around to witness Saturn’s rings. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap