NASA Confirms Saturn's Rings Will Disappear In 2025

By Khadija Pervez in Science and Technology Published On 8th November 2023
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NASA says you've got about 18 months to see Saturn's famous rings. After that, in 2025, Saturn will turn so that its rings will look like a super thin line that's almost impossible to see from Earth.

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Saturn's rings are huge, some parts are as wide as 43,500 to 87,000 miles (70,000 to 140,000 km). But they won't be visible for much longer because of the way Saturn is moving, so check them out while you still can!

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While Saturn's rings may seem vast, they are incredibly thin, only about 30 feet (10 meters) tall in the main rings. This thin profile causes them to vanish from sight when viewed from the side.

NASA

The good news is that the rings won't be gone forever. They will tilt back toward Earth during the next part of Saturn's 29-year journey around the Sun.

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Saturn's orbit has a slight wobble, causing the planet to lean toward and away from the sun during its journey. This results in a special event occurring approximately every 13.7 to 15.7 years when Earth gets a side view of Saturn.

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When Saturn is at a distance of 746 million miles (1.2 billion km) from us during this period, its rings seem to disappear from our point of view.

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Currently, Saturn's rings are tilted down toward Earth at an angle of 9 degrees, but by 2024, this angle will have reduced to just 3.7 degrees. The last time this rare event happened was in September 2009, and prior to that, it hadn't occurred since February 1996.

Astronomers won't have another opportunity to see Saturn from this unique angle until October 2038.

While Earth passing through the edge-on view may make Saturn's rings nearly impossible to see, it presents an exciting opportunity for astronomers to observe some of the planet's 156 moons.

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NASA

After Earth passes through the edge-on view, Saturn's rings will swiftly reappear as the planet's South Pole tilts to face Earth. This will provide a view of the bottom of the rings, a perspective that hasn't been visible for over 15 years. The rings will become more visible until 2032 when Saturn reaches its maximum tilt away from Earth.

Saturn's rings are primarily composed of ice, rock, and dust particles trapped by the planet's gravitational force. Some of these particles are tiny, no larger than grains of sand, while others are as large as houses, and a few are even mountain-sized.

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NASA

The prevailing belief is that the rings formed from the remnants of comets, asteroids, and moons that were torn apart by Saturn's powerful gravity. There's some debate among astronomers about when they were formed, with competing theories suggesting they could be as old as the solar system or relatively young.

While the temporary disappearance of Saturn's rings is expected this time, scientists caution that there's a possibility that the rings might vanish for good. NASA's Cassini probe, which passed through Saturn's rings 22 times before its final dive into the planet in 2017, discovered that the rings were dissipating at a rate that could be considered a worst-case scenario.

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The Cassini probe's findings indicated that Saturn's rings were losing mass at a significant rate, estimated to be somewhere between 880 pounds (400 kilograms) and 6,000 pounds (2,800 kilograms) every second.

Dr. James O'Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said: 'We're still trying to figure out exactly how fast they are eroding'.

This mass loss is attributed to a phenomenon known as 'ring rain.' Here's how it works: Solar radiation causes particles in Saturn's rings to acquire an electrical charge. As a result, these charged particles combine with the gas in Saturn's atmosphere and are subsequently pulled out of the rings by the planet's gravitational force.

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Dr. O'Donoghue further noted that current research suggests Saturn's rings may only remain part of the planet for another few hundred million years. This ongoing process of erosion and the eventual fate of Saturn's iconic rings continue to be subjects of scientific investigation.

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