Saturn’s rings facing a frosty future farewell
17 April 2023
Iconic pieces of our solar system are eroding away and space scientists are in a rush to understand how long they will remain.
Saturn’s rings, which are made up of large chunks of ice, are falling in on the planet as icy rain due to the planet’s intense gravity.
Contrary to popular belief, the rings are not a permanent feature of Saturn and some experts have suggested they could be only 100 million years old – meaning they might not have been a part of our solar system for much of the dinosaurs’ reign on Earth.
It is not clear how much longer they will remain, however, so scientists are eager to understand what is in store for the future of Saturn’s rings.
Dr James O’Donoghue, who is leading the research, will track the destruction rate of Saturn’s rings using some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, including the Keck telescope in Hawai’i and the space-based James Webb Space Telescope.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly how fast they are eroding," Dr O’Donoghue said. “Currently, research suggests the rings will only be part of Saturn for another few hundred million years. This may sound like a long time, but in the history of the universe this is a relatively quick death. We could be very lucky to be around at a time when the rings exist.
“Saturn may be many millions of miles away, but I believe the key to understanding how fast its rings are disappearing may lie with some of the world’s leading atmospheric scientists in Berkshire. Working with the meteorology experts at Reading will give me the opportunity to finally find out what is going on with our giant planetary neighbour.”
Working at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology from December 2023, Dr O’Donoghue’s research will be funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Ernest Rutherford Fellowship. The fellowships are awarded to ten promising early-career academics to establish new research projects and conduct cutting-edge science.
Dr O’Donoghue, who has previously worked for NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, also plans to solve a decades-old mystery of our solar system: why are the upper atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn so hot, when they are so distant from the Sun?
Jupiter and Saturn receive less than 4% of the sunlight the Earth receives, but have consistent atmospheric temperatures of around 200°C. This means that the Sun is not the main source of heating in the uppermost parts of these worlds, but it is unclear where the heat is coming from.