Friday, February 3, 2023

How long will the rings (of Saturn) last?

I recently took my 5-year-old daughter to see the Prado Museum and we inadvertently passed by the room with Goya’s black paintings. Although I wanted to get her out of there quickly, she kept watching some of them, she wanted to see one again that she later told me she never wanted to see again, “Saturn eating its children” . Tremendous painting, but it is that Goya was more right in many ways than we thought. Indeed, Saturn is eating its children: rings between you and me, nor diamonds as one ad said decades ago, are forever.

It’s been 412 years since we Earthlings discovered the rings of Saturn. In 1610 Galileo Galilei wrote a letter to his patron Cosimo II de’ Medici telling him that the famous planet Saturn was not alone, it had a pair of companions on each side. Two years later, the two prominences that were “like ears” of Saturn were no longer there, and Galileo wondered what Goya painted 200 years later: Has Saturn eaten its children? We can imagine how mad Galileo was when the “offspring” of the planet reappeared in 1613.

Four decades passed before Huygens came up with the idea in 1655 that what he was observing were rings of matter around the planet. At first he was unsure of his theory, and so that no one would step on it when testing further, he wrote down what is known as an anagram, “a change in the order of the letters of a word or phrase that gives rise to gives to others.” separate words or phrases. He wrote: “aaaaaaaccccccdeeeeeghiiiiiiillllmmnnnnnnnnooooppqrrstttttuuuuu.” No, my keyboard hasn’t gone mad, rearranging those letters in 1659 Huygens tells us “anuto singitur, tenui, flat, consistente nuscum, ad eclipticum inclinato”. Translated: Saturn is “surrounded by a thin, flat ring that does not touch the planet and is tilted with respect to the ecliptic.”

We explain it. In the plane defined by Saturn’s equator, perpendicular to the planet’s axis of rotation, Saturn has what we know as rings. It is a very flat structure, which can be as long as 1 kilometer, while the diameter of the planet is about 120,000 kilometers. Saturn revolves around the Sun in (more or less) the same plane as Earth, known as the ecliptic (which is an arc in the sky through which the constellations of the zodiac follow each other), Which we can think of as a pool table where the planets revolve around the system’s center of mass, which is close (but not exactly) to the center of the Sun. Saturn also rotates around an axis, but it is tilted in the same way as Earth with respect to the ecliptic, so the two planets have their own days and nights and their seasons. The angle made by Saturn’s axis of rotation with respect to the ecliptic is approximately 27º, compared to the 23º tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation with respect to the plane of the ecliptic.

Imagine two rotating vertices rotating with a certain inclination, different for each of them, and both spinning relative to each other. At each moment one rotating strand will see the other in a different form. If we are in one of these spinning tops, sometimes we will see the other tilted towards us, others on the other side, others as if it has no relative tilt with respect to us. If we include the presence of a ring in this system, the result is that sometimes Saturn’s rings are edge-on with respect to Earth, and because they are so thin, we cannot see them. . Other times they form an angle with our line of sight and are completely different with smaller telescopes.

The fact that the rings of Saturn can be recognized is not without brilliance, we are talking about a very microscopic structure compared to the planet, their mass should be about 10 million times less than that of the planet , but they shine just as much thanks to its extension (their size is equal to one-third the radius of the planet itself), its composition (mainly water ice), and sunlight, which is reflected in that water ice. is reflected, allowing us to see the rings. Well, not only have we seen the rings thanks to the Sun’s reflected light, the Cassini spacecraft uniquely managed to take pictures of Saturn’s rings with the Sun in the background, it was there, something that no mere mortal has yet ‘ I’m afraid we’ll see in situ, we haven’t met Arthur C Clarke’s expectations in “2001, A Space Odyssey”.

Where do those rings come from? Are they perfectly circular? Have they always been there? Will they last forever? We focus only on the last question, on many of the questions we’ve mentioned and on many more questions we might ask ourselves. The fact that it is raining and/or forming water snow on Saturn once again makes the word rain fall short. Little by little Saturn, to be more precise, its gravity, but also its magnetic field, is devouring its “ring children”. Not only that, solar radiation, in the form of photons and energetic particles called the solar wind, and also microscopic meteoroids are destroying the rings’ water molecules and releasing hydrogen and oxygen, actually oxygen in the rings. It’s a kind of environment. around you.

The destruction of Saturn’s rings has been calculated with not much data available, the most important being provided by the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, which passed there 45 years ago. I’m a little embarrassed to give these figures, I think the amount of time that has passed since we’ve been able to properly locate that planet seems tremendous. It’s like saying that in 45 years we haven’t visited Granada and haven’t seen one of the wonders of the world. In any case, it is estimated that the rings will disappear in 300 million years and will remain there for 10–100 million years. What a fork!, but it is that studying rings is not easy.

Human, or even life on Earth, scales those times tremendously, meaning the first primates probably didn’t see Saturn’s rings (if any made telescopes), but it’s less than 10% of the planetary scale Saturn is life. It also implies that Jupiter may once have had rings as large as or more spectacular than those of Saturn, and not as they are today, which along with Uranus and Neptune are largely unknown to the general public. But check out the latest JWST images of Neptune! And don’t wait to see Saturn’s rings! As happened with Galileo, they are now turning sideways and will disappear from our sight in a few years, to return in their full glory from 2027. And at some point in time millions of years later, the rings will vanish, never to return, swallowed up like a Goya.

cosmic void There is a section in which our knowledge about the universe is presented in a qualitative and quantitative manner. It aims to explain the importance of understanding the universe not only from a scientific point of view but also from a philosophical, social and economic point of view. The name “cosmic vacuum” refers to the fact that the universe is and is, for the most part, empty, with less than one atom per cubic meter, despite the fact that our environment contains, paradoxically, atoms per meter. There are quintillion of cubics, which invites us to contemplate our existence and the presence of life in the universe. made of segment Pablo G. Perez GonzalezResearcher at the Center for Astrobiology; Patricia Sanchez Blazquez, Full Professor at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM); why Eva VillavarResearchers at the Center for Astrobiology.

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