As Saturn's iconic rings disappear, it's on the verge of losing its largest moon as well — at a rate that's 100 times faster than originally anticipated
- Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is escaping from the clutches of the gaseous giant at a rate that’s 100 times faster than scientists previously estimated.
- Unlike the Earth and the Moon — which are destined to be together until the Sun engulfed them in another six billion years — Titan is already 1.2 million kilometres away from Saturn.
- Saturn’s gravity might not be strong enough to hold onto Titan, but it’s still strong enough to wipe its iconic rings out of existence in another 100 million years.
AdvertisementSocial distancing may be the part of the new normal down here on Earth. But, in outer space, it’s taking on a whole new meaning with Saturn’s largest moon running away from its parent planet 100 times faster than previously thought.
Originally astronomers estimated that Titan was moving away at around 0.1 centimeter per year. New results published in Nature Astronomy show that it may actually be moving away at around 11 centimetres per year — a 100 fold increase.
Its moon is not the only thing that the gaseous giant is in the process of losing. In December 2018, scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) estimated that Saturn’s rings also disappearing at an accelerated rate. In fact, they are raining down particles that could fill an olympic-sized pool every 30 minutes.
In another 100 million years, the rings may disappear altogether, according to the study published in Science Direct.
The relationship between a planet and its moon
The Earth and its moon aren’t perfect either. In fact, like every other child-parent relationship, the Moon is always moving away from its parent planet at the rate of around 3.8 centimetres per year.
The Moon’s gravity on Earth is what creates tides — and the occasional werewolf urban legend. In turn, the friction from the process distorts the Earth’s own gravitational field pulling Moon forward back into its orbit. You would think that keeps the Moon in line. However, the entire process is what gives the Moon more energy to gradually move farther away.
Fear not, there’s no chance of Earth ‘losing’ its Moon. They are destined to be together until they’re eventually engorged by the Sun in another six billion years.
Titan, on the other hand, has slowly been moving away from Saturn over the past 4.5 million years. It now stands 1.2 million kilometres from Saturn’s reach. Unlike the Earth, Saturn’s gravitational pull is a little weaker. Which makes sense, since it’s made out of gas — not rock.
AdvertisementWhat makes Titan special is that its the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere. It’s covered in rivers and seas of liquid hydrocarbons — like methane and ethane. Scientists believe that below the thick crust of water ice there may actually be a liquid water ocean capable of supporting life.
The Moon is not the only thing Saturn is losing
Saturn’s gravity isn’t strong enough to hold onto its moon, but it’s certainly strong enough to pull down its iconic rings. The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field.
These particles are caught in an everlasting balancing act between the pull of Saturn’s gravity — which wants to draw them back into the planet — and their orbital velocity, which wants to fling them outward into space.
Currently, scientists are tracking how ultraviolet light from the Sun charges the ice grains and makes them respond to Saturn’s magnetic field. They believe that varying exposure to sunlight should change the quantity of ring rain.
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