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Saturn to lose its rings in 2025 only to get them back

Saturn’s rings are like the rockstars of the night sky—super famous and stunning to look at. You can catch these beauties with just a regular telescope or some really good binoculars because they’re that massive. But here’s the plot twist: Every now and then, these iconic rings seem to vanish, a trick called ring-plane crossing. During this event, the rings line up perfectly and turn into a flat stripe slicing through the giant gas planet.

So, this ring-plane crossing thing goes down roughly every 15 years, and the next spectacle is set for March 2025. After that, for a few months, the rings will seem to grow “larger” before pulling a disappearing act again in November 2025. Now, why does this whole disappearing act even happen?

Alright, so Saturn’s ring-plane crossing is basically a cosmic dance caused by the changing angles we see from Earth. Both Earth and Saturn are on their own tilty orbits around the Sun, but they move at different speeds and have different orbit times. While Earth takes a year to complete its orbit, Saturn does its own thing, taking about 29.4 years to make a full circle. Because of this, our perspective of Saturn shifts over time. It’s like a cosmic illusion – the rings seem to play peek-a-boo, growing and shrinking, and occasionally vanishing entirely for a little while.

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Will Saturn lose its rings in 2025?

So, about this ring-plane crossing gig – it goes down about every 15 years. The last time we got a front-row seat to this cosmic show was in 2009. But, here’s the bummer: we won’t catch a glimpse of either the 2009 or 2025 events from Earth because Saturn will be cozied up too close to the Sun.

These rings are crazy thin, and when you look at them from a distance, they seem to disappear when they’re edge-on. You can picture it by taking a sheet of paper and giving it a spin until it’s on its edge – it kind of disappears, right? As Saturn does its dance around the Sun, our perspective keeps changing. During half of its orbit, the top half (northern hemisphere) tilts toward us, and we get a nice view of the northern side of the planet’s rings.

Here’s a cool way to show this: take a sheet of paper and hold it flat, like it’s parallel to the ground, right in front of your eyes. Now, lower the paper a bit towards the ground. Notice how you can now see the upper side of the paper? Bring it back up above your eye line, and now you see the underside. But when it goes through eye level, the paper kinda vanishes, right? It’s a neat trick!

It’s like a cosmic magic trick with Saturn’s rings. As Saturn goes through its seasons, we switch from getting a good look at the southern side of the rings to checking out the northern side. Then, the planet tilts back, and bam, we’re back to the southern side. Twice in one Saturnian year, we hit the sweet spot where we see the rings edge-on, and they pretty much vanish. That’s the deal in 2025 – Saturn’s rings are playing hide-and-seek because we’re catching them edge-on.

Perfect time to hunt for Saturn’s many moons

Back in 1995, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope snapped some epic shots of Saturn’s rings edge-on. This gave astronomers a sweet chance to check out not only Saturn’s big moons but also hunt for some new ones. Why is ring-plane crossing the perfect moon-hunting time? Well, when those bright rings usually hog the spotlight, it’s hard to spot smaller objects orbiting Saturn. But during ring-plane crossing, the glare takes a backseat, giving astronomers a clear shot at discovering new moons.

Believe it or not, from 1655 to 1980, astronomers stumbled upon 13 new moons of Saturn thanks to ring-plane crossings. Then, in 1980, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft joined the moon-hunting party and found some more. Back in the day, during the 1789-1790 ring-plane crossing, William Herschel spotted two of Saturn’s big shots, Enceladus and Mimas (aka the Death Star). Hyperion made its debut during the 1848-1849 ring-plane crossing.

Back in 1612, Galileo Galilei, the guy who first spotted Saturn’s rings just two years earlier, stumbled upon ring-crossing by accident. When he saw the rings seemingly vanish, he scribbled in his notes, “I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel.” Talk about unexpected cosmic surprises! Yep, as mentioned, the whole ring-plane crossing thing is a tag team effort by Earth and Saturn, with their tilts and orbits teaming up. This cosmic collaboration also has a say in how the rings play along in the north-south direction during the crossing.

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Saturn will one day lose its rings forever

In the upcoming ring-plane crossing in March 2025, Saturn’s rings will do a south-to-north shuffle. But, hold onto your space helmets, because in the ring-plane crossing event way down the road in August 2068, the rings will be taking a north-to-south route. It’s like the rings are doing their own cosmic dance routine!

So, thanks to ring-plane crossing, Saturn’s rings pull off this disappearing act, but don’t get too used to it – the illusion won’t last forever. The deal is, the icy bits making up the rings are gradually saying goodbye to Saturn. According to a 2019 study using observations from Earth, they reckon the rings will bid their final farewell in about 292 million years. That’s a cosmic farewell party!

In the latest scoop, a study from 2023 used info gathered by NASA’s Cassini mission and expanded the estimate for how much longer Saturn’s rings have. According to them, we’re looking at a lifespan of somewhere between 15 to 400 million years. That’s quite a range! What cool stuff are astronomers gonna dig up with Saturn’s ring-plane crossing in the pipeline for the next few years and decades? Well, only time will spill the cosmic beans, and that’s why we’re all about the science ride!

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.