Saturn's Stunning Rings Explained - Josh Habka

Saturn's rings are pieces of asteroids, comets, or shattered moons that broke up before they reached the planet, torn apart by Saturn's powerful gravity.
Saturn's Stunning Rings Explained - Josh Habka

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  • Saturn's rings consist of thousands of ringlets made of billions of ice particles orbiting the planet.
  • Various theories suggest that the rings could be remnants of comets, asteroids, or moons that were pulled into Saturn's orbit over millions of years.
  • One hypothesis proposes that a moon-sized object once broke apart due to Saturn's gravitational force, forming the rings approximately 200 million years ago.
  • The rings are composed of particles, primarily water ice and rock fragments, ranging from dust-sized grains to mountain-sized chunks.
  • These particles likely accumulated over time, forming rings of different densities and compositions at various distances from Saturn's surface.
  • The structure of Saturn's rings follows a specific order from inner to outer rings, including distinctive divisions, gaps, and subdivisions.
  • When Earth passes through Saturn's equatorial plane, the rings appear edge-on from Earth's perspective, sometimes seeming to vanish.
  • Mystery rings, composed of smaller ringlets, contribute to the complexity and dynamism of Saturn's ring system.

Thousands of rings within the rings strike Saturn, all made of billions of pieces of ice orbiting Saturn. Astronomers had theorized that the chunks of rock and ice that comprise the rings are remnants from millions of years when comets, asteroids, and even tiny moons were pulled into Saturn's orbit. Saturn's eerie rings could have formed when a small moon wandered too close to Saturn and broke up, but the particles could also result from comets or asteroids straying in.

The rings could have formed from materials left over after the formation of Saturn itself -- materials that failed to make a moon. Saturn's impressive rings may have been created when a moon about the size of Mimas drifted too close to Saturn some 200 million years ago, breaking up because of the enormous gravitational force exerted by Saturn. A common theory for how all of the material was initially built into Saturn's rings is through a series of impacts by asteroids.

We now know the rings are made up of particles, mostly water, ice, and chunks of rock, some of which are small, like grains of dust, and others are big, like mountains. The simple answer to why Saturn has rings and what they are made from is that Saturn has built up an enormous amount of dust, particles, and ice, all located at different distances from the surface. A more recent variation on this kind of theory, proposed by R. M. Canup, is that the rings of Saturn may be some remnants of an icy mantle from a much larger, Titan-sized, differentiated moon, which was stripped of its outer layers when it spiraled toward the planet during a formational period in which Saturn was still surrounded by an even more giant gaseous nebula.

Moving outwards from Saturn, the natural order of the rings is D, C, B, A, F, G, E. The F-ring is composed of so many smaller ringlets of the type that, from a distance, they look like they are braided. There are now seven known bands, wittily named A, B, C, D, F, G, and E. The distance from Saturn's center to the outer edges of the distinguishing rings is nearly 500,000 kilometers, yet the rings are, incredibly, just a few meters thick. Saturn's distinctive rings are broad and narrow, the most extensive stretching as far as Saturn 28,2000 kilometers (175,000 miles) away, yet they are only a few feet thick at most places.

From inner to outermost, the main structures in Saturn's rings are:

  • D, C, and B rings
  • Cassini Division
  • A ring
  • Roche Division
  • F ring
  • Janus/Epimetheus ring
  • G ring
  • Methone and Anthe ring arcs
  • Pallene ring
  • E ring
  • Phoebe ring

Many of these have their own subdivisions, gaps, structures, and moonlets within.

Every once in a while, the Earth passes right through Saturn's equatorial plane, so the distinct rings are seen from Earth's perspective at their edges, essentially vanishing. These mystery rings are moving around and spinning at an impossibly high rate around Saturn; smaller rings are making up larger rings.

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