Decades ago, when the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft flew past Saturn, giving us our first close-up look at this wonderful planet, scientists used the data the probes sent back to discover that the wide rings surrounding it were raining down into the planet's upper atmosphere. NASA says that Saturn's gravity is pulling the ice that makes up the rings "into a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field".
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. In October, NASA released findings from the hair-raising dive its Cassini spacecraft made between the innermost edge of Saturn's rings and the uppermost reaches of its atmosphere, shortly before its planned suicide plunge into the planet in September of 2017.
"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", said James O'Donoghue of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a statement.
Based on that current rate, and research carried out by the Cassini spacecraft, the rings have less than 100 million years to live. A recent paper suggests that a whopping 22,000 pounds of material falls from the rings every single second, and over time that rain will bleed the rings completely dry. They later react chemically with the electrically charged part of the ionosphere, Saturn's upper atmosphere.
The rings are depositing so much ice on to the planet that they will essentially destroy themselves.
Saturn's rings make it one of the most striking planets in the solar system, but scientists believe they could disappear in less than a 100 million years - which isn't all that long when you consider that the gas giant itself is more than 4 billion years old.
The grains of ice and dust that form Saturn's rings are constantly pulled into the gas giant's body by gravity.
"We are lucky to be around to see Saturn's ring system, which appears to be in the middle of its lifetime".
Stretching some 175,000 miles across, Saturn's bangles easily outshine the dark, fragmented rings feebly encircling Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.
Theories which could explain the origin of the rings include the idea they came about when small icy moons collided after their orbits were disturbed by a passing asteroid or comet.
O'Donoghue is the lead author of a study on Saturn's ring rain appearing in the journal Icarus. This view looks toward the night side on Pandora as well, which is lit by dim golden light reflected from Saturn. The spacecraft detected ring rain not only where the Keck study did, but at the equator too.
The research was funded by NASA and the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard, administered by the Universities Space Research Association.