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Saturn’s iconic rings are disappearing, study says

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It is one of the most admired planets in our solar system: Saturn. But a new study suggests that the ringed beauty will lose its most stunning feature.

According to the study published in the journal Icarus, Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun and the only one in our solar system with such an intricate and large ring system, is losing its beloved rings.

The particles of ice that make up the rings are being pulled into the planet at a rate that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every half hour, something that scientists refer to as “ring rain.”

This would mean that the entire ring system could be gone in 300 million years. But, if you factor in additional data collected by the Cassini spacecraft that flew through the rings in 2017, it could be as soon as 100 million years.

An artist’s impression of how Saturn may look in the next hundred million years. The innermost rings disappear as they rain onto the planet first, followed by the outer rings. (NASA/Cassini/James O’Donoghue)

While that may sound like a long time, in the scale of the planets, it’s the blink of an eye. Our solar system is roughly four billion years old.

The new findings may help shed light on the age of the ring system. Scientists are unsure if they are old or formed later in the planet’s lifetime, perhaps by small moons that collided. But if the rings will completely disappear over what astronomers consider a short period of time, it suggests that they formed late. Millions of years ago, Saturn could have been even more dazzling than it is today.

“The young age of the rings has some really startling implications. It is possible, in the age of the dinosaurs, that Saturn’s rings were even larger and brighter than we see them today,” said Tom Stallard, associate professor in planetary astronomy at the University of Leicester and co-author of the paper.

And while we may have missed out on an even larger ring system, we’re fortunate to live at a time when they still exist at all.

“All the evidence keeps pointing lately to the rings being young, 100 million years or younger,” said James O’Donoghue from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and co-author of the paper. “Which shows you the possible window might just be a few hundred million years of this ring system. We’re lucky to be around in this time.”

Balancing game

Saturn’s rings are made up of ice particles ranging in size from dust grains to boulders. They orbit the planet, but as they do, the tug of gravity from the enormous planet below pulls them inward. It’s a delicate balancing act between gravity and orbital velocity.

However, the particles can also become electrically charged, either by ultraviolet light from the sun or from plasma clouds that are created when tiny meteoroids zip through the rings. Once charged, that balancing act is disrupted and the particles can be pulled along the magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere.

This discovery supports earlier findings. When the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft passed the planet in the 1980s, they detected three dark bands in its upper atmosphere. A later study suggested that they were caused by charged ice particles falling along the planet’s magnetic field lines.

Saturn isn’t the only planet with rings: Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have thin, diffuse rings. And this could be what Saturn will be left with in 100 million years.

An image taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on Nov. 8, 1996 of Jupiter’s ring. (NASA, JPL, Galileo Project, (NOAO), J. Burns (Cornell) et al.)

“Ring systems are transient themselves, sort of temporary looking features,” said O’Donoghue.

The researchers used data from the Keck II telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, together with the Voyager data. O’Donoghue hopes to use other telescopes in the future such as the upcoming Thirty-Meter-Telescope scheduled to be constructed in Hawaii or the James Webb Telescope scheduled to launch into space in 2021. The telescopes may help answer questions about how the particles become charged and other ongoing mysteries.

As for the prospect of losing the rings one day, O’Donoghue said people should be happy.

“They should be sad that they’re going, I guess, but happy that they were around to see it,” O’Donoghue said. “It’s pretty lucky. It provides for the imagination, thinking about what the other planets might have looked like as well.”

It’s a reminder of just how dynamic planets are, O’Donoghue said.

“The things we thought we knew are being revised all the time,” he said. “Everything is in flux.”

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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