Saturn may be the most beautiful planet in our solar system. String after string of frosty stuff, with a smidgeon of rock, placed in a fragile ring. Close inspection reveals subtle pinks, greys, and browns gleaming in the darkness. It’s difficult to imagine Saturn without them. Saturn’s rings, however, are not a permanent feature. They are, in reality, becoming extinct. Every year, the rings lose substance. Entering micrometeorites and solar rays perturb and modernize the minute, dusty bits of ring material. Unexpectedly altered, the particles become sensitive to Saturn’s magnetic flux and begin swirling along those unseen channels. Gravity pulls the particles in when they approach too close to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere, and they evaporate.
Saturn’s ring structure appeared to be as old as the planetary system itself; suddenly it appeared that the rings did not exist when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The solar system had calmed down by then, so whence had Saturn obtained the raw resources? Reuters reported that “the chance of an event generating the rings now”—that is, within the last 100 million years or so, in astronomer-speak—”is incredibly unlikely,” Paul Estrada, a NASA senior scientist who has researched Saturn’s rings for years, told Reuters. Even so, further recent findings lend credence to this notion. In 2017, a NASA spacecraft named Cassini flew through Saturn’s rings, transmitting back as much data as it could before being incinerated in the planetary system.
The light bouncing off this incredibly thin band is so tiny that the rings just disintegrate, “Linda Spilker, deputy project scientist for NASA’s Cassini Saturn spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted. The scientific community has yet to reach an agreement on the genesis narrative of Saturn’s rings. However, if the rings are genuinely cosmically young, scientists believe they developed when one of Saturn’s older moons got too close and was ripped to shreds. The moon was most likely tiny; our own moon, according to O’Donoghue, could be utilized to create hundreds of ring systems similar to Saturn’s.
Maybe, once Saturn’s rings have gone, the cosmos will provide the planet with a new set. Perhaps by some process, another moon is split away, a comet approaches in a similar way, and we start again from scratch,” Spilker speculated. “Perhaps this isn’t the last we’ll see of Saturn’s rings.”