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Rings of Saturn: An analysis

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

-by Yagyasha Rastogi





Saturn, the gas giant that sits in the outer part of our solar system, has one of the most extensive ring systems known to humankind. This icy world is surrounded by a magnificent ring system that consists of countless particles whose size ranges from a few micrometers to thousands of meters.

This article will analyze this fascinating ring system. So, let’s dive in!


WHAT ARE THESE RINGS MADE UP OF?!

Saturn's rings are undoubtedly made up of ice and rock particles. The source of these rings is presumably pieces of comets, asteroids, and shattered moons which were influenced by the giant’s strong magnetic field. It is thought that these asteroids and moons were destroyed by the gravity of Saturn before they could reach it, then over years they just kept colliding and forming even smaller particles, resulting in the majestic ring system.

HISTORICAL OBSERVATIONS

The great astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first person (in human history) to observe these rings in 1610. However, he was not able to recognize them as such. He reported his observations to the Duke of Tuscany writing, “The planet Saturn is not alone, but is composed of three, which almost touch one another and never move nor change with respect to one another. They are arranged in a line parallel to the zodiac, and the middle one (Saturn itself) is about three times the size of the lateral ones."

Later in 1655, Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, observed that these were actually rings. However, he perceived them to be solid. It was in 1675 when French astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini discovered the Cassini gap, suggesting that these rings might not be solid. Later the true nature of these rings was determined with significant contributions from Pierre-Simon Laplace, James Clerk Maxwell, and astronomer James Keeler.

NOMENCLATURE

Saturn’s ring system expands up to 175,000 miles (282,000 km) but is yet very thin with a width of about 30 feet (10 meters). The rings are named alphabetically in order of discovery. They are fairly close to each other, except for the 2920-mile gap known as the Cassini Division which separates rings A and B. The rings A, B, and C are the main rings, whereas rings D, E, F, and G are fainter and newly discovered.

There are also some very empty gaps in the main rings, most of them are in Ring C but Ring A too consists of two such gaps. All of these are sharp-edged. To this day, these rings remain to be intensively studied by many astronomers around the world. The two gaps in Ring A are held open by moons, and the columbo Gap in Ring C is due to the effect of the titan (Saturn’s moon), but most of these gaps are still unexplained.

THE PHEOBE RING

Saturn also boasts the largest known ring in the solar system, the Phoebe ring. The said ring is very faint and present in the orbit of Saturn’s moon Phoebe. This ring was discovered by the Spitzer Space telescope in 2009. Phoebe ring is a staggering 30 million km wide, but it is very fragile, containing about 10 particles per cubic kilometer.

This ring is possibly the only ring where whole particles travel in a retrograde motion, presumably from the effect of Saturn's moon Phoebe. Since the particles of Phoebe ring spiral inwards, they highly affect the moon Iapetus.

SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT SATURN’S RINGS

Mysterious strokes of light are also observed in the rings, which disperse only a few hours after they arise. Scientists have speculated that these are electrically charged sheets of dust-sized particles created due to the impact of asteroids on the rings or by electron beams from the planet’s lighting.

Ring F of the planet also has a peculiar braided appearance. This ring has several gaps, bends, kinks, and bright clumps that make it look like it's braided.

Saturn’s rings also give a tremendous amount of information about the evolution of our solar system. For example, the disc structure provides us with a plethora of information about how solid bodies grew together to form the world that we live in today. Therefore, these rings are undoubtedly a magnificent analogy of the evolution of our solar system as a whole and should continue to be researched upon for many generations to come so that we, as a human race, can comprehend our solar system better. A planet, Saturn may be, but an inspiration for many nonetheless.

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