NASA’s Cassini mission reveals that Saturn’s iconic icy rings may not be visible to future skygazers. The data collected during Cassini’s orbit of Saturn from 2004 to 2017 has suggested the age and potential disappearance of the rings. Three studies published in May support the theory that the rings formed long after Saturn was formed, making them possibly just a few hundred million years old. Saturn’s rings are mainly composed of ice, with a small percentage consisting of rocky dust. Surprisingly, the rings appear to be clean, suggesting that they have not been around long enough to collect cosmic dust. Additionally, the rings are losing mass at a rapid rate due to meteoroid impacts, indicating that their existence is limited. The researchers estimate that the rings may only exist for a few hundred million more years.

The origin of Saturn’s rings is speculated to be caused by the gravitational instability that destroyed some of the planet’s icy moons. The findings from these studies have led scientists to consider the possibility that the rings around other ice and gas giants in our solar system, such as Uranus and Neptune, may have once been more extensive and luminous. Understanding the formation and fate of Saturn’s rings may contribute to the potential for finding the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.