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Surprising Science

Why It’s Raining On Saturn

According to a new study published in this week’s Nature, icy particles inside the rings erode into the upper atmosphere and eventually form rain water that falls on parts of the planet.

What’s the Latest Development?

With the help of super-clear images from Hawaii’s Keck Observatory, scientists from the UK and the US have found a connection between some of the icier parts of Saturn’s rings and darker regions on the planet’s surface. That connection appears to be rain. Magnetic field lines linking the two areas “creates a pathway for small ice particles in the rings to slough off into the planet’s atmosphere,” resulting in rain. The details of the team’s research appear in this week’s issue of Nature.

What’s the Big Idea?

Most of what makes up Saturn’s rings are small boulders, but the way in which the rings have evolved has never been fully determined. Astrophysicist Jack Connerney writes in Nature that, over time, “[m]ass is transferred from one boulder to next, and while it’s transferred, [the particles are] vulnerable to erosion mechanisms.” This helps explain how those parts of the rings that are made up of ice eventually erode into particles that fall to the surface as rain. The magnetic field responsible for the rain may also contribute to the density and composition of each ring.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

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