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Saturn’s iconic rings are raining thousands of pounds of material onto the planet every second

Published Oct 5th, 2018 12:49PM EDT
saturn ring rain
Image: NASA

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Some people love when it rains, but even the most devoted storm-lovers here on Earth would have a hard time dealing with the conditions on Saturn. New research using data from NASA’s Cassini probe has revealed that it does indeed rain on Saturn, but it’s not the kind that you’d want dropping on your head.

The paper, which was just published in Science, explains that Saturn’s iconic rings are actually dripping down onto the planet itself. Dust particles and other material is constantly raining down from the rings and falling to the planet due to the pull of gravity.

A light dusting of space debris might not sound too bad, but the data shows that the precipitation is anything but mild. In fact, the rings rain an incredible 22,000 pounds of material down on the planet every second. The spacecraft was able to make these observations thanks to onboard sensors that were gathering data as the probe dove between Saturn’s rings.

Cassini’s data also revealed that the particles don’t all fall in a straight line towards the planet. Some do indeed just tumble down, but others become caught up in the planet’s magnetic field and are pulled into patterns that the researchers call “ring rain.”

Cassini ultimately sacrificed itself to the planet, making a heroic dive towards Saturn’s upper atmosphere causing it to be incinerated by the intense friction. But before it performed that final dive, it completed an absolutely remarkable finale by looping around the planet at ever-closer distances and slipping through the planet’s rings. It did that 22 times before finally slamming into Saturn in late 2017, marking an end to its life after nearly two decades in space.

This is hardly the last we’ll hear of Cassini, however, as the probe sent back so much data that researchers will still be sifting through it for years to come. What other secrets will it uncover? We probably won’t have to wait long to find out.