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HomeScienceSaturn's rings will DISAPPEAR in 2025, NASA confirms

Saturn’s rings will DISAPPEAR in 2025, NASA confirms

Time is running out for a last look at Saturn‘s rings, with only 18 months left before they disappear from view.

NASA has confirmed that stargazers have until 2025 to view the iconic structures before Saturn tilts edge-on with Earth, turning the vast rings into an almost invisible line.

Saturn’s rings are enormous structures, extending up to 43,500 to 87,000 miles (70,000 to 140,000 km) in places.

Yet they are almost paper thin in comparison, at only 30ft (10m) tall in the main rings, making them disappear when viewed side-on.

The rings will not be gone for good, however, and will tilt back towards Earth during the next phase of Saturn’s 29-year orbit. 

The next 18 months are the last chance to see Saturn's rings before they disappear from view due to the planet's tilt The next 18 months are the last chance to see Saturn's rings before they disappear from view due to the planet's tilt

The next 18 months are the last chance to see Saturn’s rings before they disappear from view due to the planet’s tilt

During its 29-year orbit, Saturn tilts towards and away from the Sun and gives Earth different views of its vast rings During its 29-year orbit, Saturn tilts towards and away from the Sun and gives Earth different views of its vast rings

During its 29-year orbit, Saturn tilts towards and away from the Sun and gives Earth different views of its vast rings

READ MORE: How Saturn got its rings: Simulations suggest they evolved from the debris of two moons 

Due to a tilt in its orbit, Saturn wobbles slightly towards and away from the sun throughout its orbital period.

This means that, for a short period every 13.7 to 15.7 years, Earth sees the planet perfectly from the side.

At 746 million miles (1.2 billion km) away, this makes the rings appear to vanish from our perspective. 

As it stands, Saturn’s rings are tilted downwards towards Earth at an angle of 9 degrees and by 2024 that angle will have reduced to just 3.7 degrees.

The last time this rare astronomical event occurred was in September 2009, and before that, it had not occurred since February 1996.

Astronomers will not get the chance to view Saturn from this unique perspective again until October 2038.

After 2025 star-gazers will have a fantastic view of the bottom side of Saturn's rings, something which has not been seen in more than a decade After 2025 star-gazers will have a fantastic view of the bottom side of Saturn's rings, something which has not been seen in more than a decade

After 2025 star-gazers will have a fantastic view of the bottom side of Saturn’s rings, something which has not been seen in more than a decade

COULD PRIMITIVE LIFE EXIST ON TITAN?

Using data collected as Cassini flew through Titan’s upper atmosphere, at about 950–1300 km (590-807 miles) above the surface, researchers have identified what are known as ‘carbon chain anions’.

These are thought to be the building blocks of more the more complex compounds that make life possible.

Researchers say the data from Cassini’s plasma spectrometer (CAPS), suggest the carbon chains ‘seeded’ larger molecules at Titan, as they were found to dwindle closer to the moon, while precursors to larger aerosols underwent rapid growth.

Not only does the discovery suggest Titan may contain molecules that drive prebiotic chemistry, but it could also help to explain how life sprung up on Earth, according to the European Space Agency.

 

Earth passing through the edge-on-view might make Saturn’s rings impossible to see, but astronomers say it will be an excellent time to watch some of the planet’s 156 moons. 

After passing through the edge-on view, Saturn’s rings will quickly return to view as the planet’s South Pole tilts to face Earth.

This will bring the bottom of the rings into sight of Earth – a view which has not been visible for over a decade and a half.

The rings will continue to become more visible until 2032 when Saturn reaches its maximum tilt away from Earth.  

Saturn’s rings are made mainly of chunks of ice, rock, and dust that have been trapped by the planet’s gravitational pull.

While some of the particles are tiny – no bigger than grains of sand – some of the chunks of ice can be as big as a house and a few are even as large as mountains. 

It is currently believed that the rings are formed from the shattered remains of comets, asteroids, and moons that were torn apart by Saturn’s powerful gravity. 

Exactly when they were formed remains a topic of some debate among astronomers with competing theories suggesting they are as old as the solar system or relatively young. 

While the disappearance of Saturn’s rings will only be temporary this time, scientists warn that the rings may one day be gone for good.

NASA’s Cassini probe, which flew through Saturn’s rings 22 times before its 2017 death dive into the planet, found that the rings were vanishing at a ‘worst case scenario rate’.

Saturn's rings are composed mainly of ice, rock and dust formed from the shattered remains of comets and moons trapped by the planet's intense gravity Saturn's rings are composed mainly of ice, rock and dust formed from the shattered remains of comets and moons trapped by the planet's intense gravity

Saturn’s rings are composed mainly of ice, rock and dust formed from the shattered remains of comets and moons trapped by the planet’s intense gravity 

Cassini found that the rings were losing somewhere between 880lbs (400kg) and 6,000lbs (2,800kg) of mass every single 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’.

In a phenomenon known as ‘ring rain’, radiation from the Sun causes particles in the atmosphere to gain an electrical charge.

This, in turn, causes the particles to bind with gas in Saturn’s atmosphere and become pulled out of the rings by the planet’s gravity. 

Dr O’Donoghue added: ‘Currently, research suggests the rings will only be part of Saturn for another few hundred million years.’

SATURN: THE BASICS

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest planet in our solar system after Jupiter.

It is regarded as the ‘jewel of the solar system’ with its sunning rings.  

It is not the only planet to have rings but none are as spectacular or as complicated as Saturn’s.

Like Jupiter, Saturn is a massive ball made mostly of hydrogen and helium, with some heavy elements.

Its core stretches out to cover 60 per cent of the radius of the world.

It is similar to the rest of the planet, but made of a ‘slush’ like material of gasses, metallic fluids, rock and ice. 

The farthest planet from Earth discovered by the naked eye, Saturn has been known since ancient times. 

The planet is named for the Roman god of agriculture and wealth, who was also the father of Jupiter. 

While planet Saturn is an unlikely place for living things to take hold, the same is not true of some of its many moons.

Satellites like Enceladus and Titan, home to internal oceans, could possibly support life. 

Facts and figures 

Distance from Sun: 1.434 billion km

Orbital period: 29 years

Surface area: 42.7 billion km²

Radius: 58,232 km

Mass: 5.683 × 10^26 kg (95.16 M⊕)

Length of day: 0d 10h 42m

Moons: 82 with formal designations; innumerable additional moonlets 

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