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Saturn's rings are shrinking and boffins will use the Webb 'scope to find out why

They go down, down, down, with the burning pull of gravity ... or do they?

Astronomers will direct NASA's James Webb Space Telescope to peer at Saturn in an attempt to discern when its iconic rings might vanish.

Saturn is the most recognizable planet in the Solar System thanks to its extensive rings, comprising uncountable billions of ice and rock chunks that circle the planet's equator at diverse speeds.

Observations made by NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 probes in 1980 and 1981 hinted that Saturn's rings were eroding. Other spacecraft like Cassini have since made closer observations of the planet, leading to development of a theory that Saturn's gravity and magnetic field attracts matter from its rings.

Boffins believe that over 300 million years, give or take an eon, that process will make Saturn's rings increasingly sparse.

"We're still trying to figure out exactly how fast they are eroding," James O'Donoghue, a planetary researcher who will lead new research examining Saturn's loss of rings using the James Webb Space Telescope and the ground-based Keck telescope in Hawaii, said in a statement.

"Currently, research suggests the rings will only be part of Saturn for another few hundred million years. This may sound like a long time, but in the history of the universe this is a relatively quick death. We could be very lucky to be around at a time when the rings exist." Enjoy them while you can – they are precious.

O'Donoghue has previously said "We estimate that this 'ring rain' drains an amount of water products that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool from Saturn's rings in half an hour."

O'Donoghue will lead a team of scientists from the University of Reading's Department of Meteorology in the effort to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms driving the loss of ring-stuff.

They're not alone in pondering the gas giant's rings: a recent study analyzed old data that was previously mistaken as noise and hypothesized that falling ring chunks heat Saturn's atmosphere.

The Register has asked O’Donoghue for comment. ®

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