Time to catch up on some Solar System news!
Saturn is the gateway drug for an addiction to the night sky.
Alas, in a mere 300 million years from now, it maybe less of an astronomy evangelist than it is now, assuming that our lineage has left any descendent species to kvell at the cosmos:
Saturn’s icy rings are among the most iconic features in the solar system. But they’re raining so much water onto the planet…they could rain themselves nearly out of existence, leaving Saturn startlingly ringless.
“What we’re seeing is something on the order of about a ton and a half per second,” said James O’Donoghue of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., who reports the conclusions Monday in the journal Icarus. [links in the original]
This is, to be sure, a first estimate, and it is one made in the face of substantial unknowns:
Assuming a constant rate of ring rain — which Dr. Spilker said is a substantial unknown — the team calculated that Saturn’s rings could mostly shed themselves into oblivion within 300 million years.
“It’s not out of the question,I would say, that the rings might degrade on this kind of time scale,” said Jeff Cuzzi of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who was not involved in the research.
But, he added, “it doesn’t mean that if you come back, there would just be nothing there.” The rate at which the rings might waste away depends not only on how much material is still in the rings, but on other physical forces, Saturn’s shifting seasons and the way in which ring material is replenished.
There is some evidence pointing towards a yet more swift destruction of the rings, but the basic message is that beauty is ephemeral, no matter where you look.
In other news, the outer solar system is growing ever more crowded, and some of those who study it may be showing their age, or at least the timing of the acquisition of their formative vocabulary:
A newly discovered object is the most-distant body ever observed in the solar system — and the first object ever found orbiting at more than 100 times the distance from Earth to the sun…
Formally, this new solar companion has a very prim an proper name:
…Its provisional designation from the International Astronomical Union is 2018 VG18.
The new dwarf planet is distant enough that very little is known about it besides its existence.
“All that we currently know about 2018 VG18 is its extreme distance from the sun, its approximate diameter, and its color,” David Tholen, a researcher at the University of Hawaii and part of the discovery team, said in a statement. “Because 2018 VG18 is so distant, it orbits very slowly, likely taking more than 1,000 years to take one trip around the Sun.”
It’s a blank canvas, in other words, on which its observers allowed memories of perhaps well-misspent youths to play:
The discovery team nicknamed the object “Farout”…
…which is appropriate, given the borderlands location in which it abides:
Farout is 120 astronomical units (AU) from the sun — one AU is the distance between Earth and the sun, which is about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers). The object is more than 3.5 times the current distance between Pluto and the sun (34 AU), and it outpaces the previous farthest-known solar system object, the dwarf planet Eris, which is currently about 96 AU from the sun. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft recently entered interstellar space at about 120 AU, leaving the sun’s “sphere of influence” called the heliopause, where bodies experience the solar wind.
I can think of some American political actors for whom this would make an ideal vacation destination. As the saying goes…I’ve got a little list.
Anyway, despite the best efforts of our Republican friends and the MAGAt apocaplyse, humankind, and the US government, are capable of some great things, as above. There are days when I cling to that thought.
Open thread, y’all.
Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Saturn eclipse mosaic, 2013
Aokokoro Mandelbrot set image number 8, 2009 — going for the feeling, ya know?