Does the Earth Have Rings Like Saturn's?
The Earth has rings, but they’re probably not what you think
All of the large planets in the solar system have what are called planetary rings; only the smaller, inner planets such as Earth don’t have them. But our beloved Earth does have a ring or two, so please keep reading and find what sort of rings these are, and how the destruction of one of them could cause great disruption in our daily lives.
Which Planets Have Rings?
Most people probably know that the planet Saturn has an extensive system of rings. Astronomers, amateur and otherwise, may consider Saturn’s rings to be the most beautiful objects in the solar system. First viewed by Galileo in 1610, Saturn’s rings are comprised of chunks of ice and dust, varying in size from micrometers to meters. Saturn has so many rings that each has been given a different letter; the first discovered is known as A, the second B, and so on.
Jupiter, another gas giant like Saturn, has a much smaller system of rings than Saturn. Jupiter’s rings are comprised mostly of dust and extremely hard to see. Jupiter’s rings were discovered by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1979 and then studied to a much greater extent by the Galileo spacecraft throughout the 1990s.
The planets, Uranus and Neptune, the so-called ice giants, have ring systems as well. Uranus’ system of rings is extensive, though very thin and dark and consists of organic molecules processed by radiation. Neptune’s rings are comparable to Jupiter’s rings, that is, very thin and hard to see and also made of organics. (Organic molecules are those containing the element carbon, upon which all known life is based.)
It’s been theorized that when the New Horizons space probe reaches Pluto in 2015, it will detect a ring around this dwarf planet, because many comets have passed by it over the eons, leaving ice and dust as they swung by, perhaps enough to form a small ring. Also, satellites (or moons) such as Saturn’s Rhea, may have a ring as well.
What Are the Origins of Planetary Rings?
Planetary rings form in three different ways:
1. Material from the protoplanetary disk that stays within a planet's Roche limit cannot form a moon, because the gravitational field generated by the planet around which the material orbits would continually tear the material apart. This is how the rings of Saturn formed billions of years ago.
2. The debris from a moon hit by another moon, asteroid or comet can gradually collect, spread out and form a ring.
3. If an asteroid or comet moves too close to a planet or dwarf planet, the tidal stress can break apart this interloper, much in the same way Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was ripped to pieces when it moved too close to Jupiter in 1994.
Did the Earth Ever Have a Planetary Ring?
The Earth has no planetary ring, but it certainly had one about four billion years ago when a planetoid about the size of the planet Mars collided with the Earth, forming a huge ring of debris around the Earth. This ring of debris eventually coalesced, forming the Moon.
Then, about 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck the Earth, perhaps bringing about the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species. This impact probably formed a ring of debris around earth that could have stayed up there for as long as a million years, blocking sunlight and cooling the Earth’s climate.
The Earth’s Antiproton Ring
According to the article “Antiproton Ring Found around Earth,” in the August 4, 2011 issue of New Scientist magazine, the Earth has a ring of antimatter orbiting the planet. This antimatter, comprised of antiprotons (the anti-particles of protons) and positrons (the anti-particles of electrons) forms around the Earth when cosmic rays from deep space bombard matter in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Once formed, this antimatter is trapped within the Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts, where it revolves around the planet until it collides with regular matter, annihilating each particle in the process. The energy released in this mini explosion is more powerful than that generated by nuclear fusion, the power source for the Sun and other stars.
In theory, spacecraft of the future could scoop up this antimatter and use it to power a spaceship, which could then fly to the Moon and planets such as Mars. Moreover, giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn probably have millions or billions of times more antimatter orbiting in their radiation belts, so utilizing this massive source of energy could send spacecraft to other star systems!
The Earth’s Artificial Ring
A ring of antimatter is one thing, but this ring was built by humankind! Many satellites are in what’s called a geostationary orbit, that is, they orbit the Earth some 22,000 miles above the equator, thereby staying directly over the same spot on the Earth. This way antennas on Earth can remain pointed at one position in the sky. These satellites are used in telecommunications, global navigation and satellite television. Our modern high-tech world wouldn’t be the same without them.
Unfortunately, like all of Earth’s satellites, they can be easily damaged or destroyed when struck by even a very small amount of the space junk orbiting the planet. In fact, if just one satellite in geostationary orbit is damaged by this debris, and then breaks apart, the resultant chunks could set off a chain reaction destroying nearly all the geostationary satellites!
So, does the earth have rings – you betcha, though nothing quite like Saturn’s, of course, but one of them is helping run our modern technological existence, without which many of us would be very unhappy – or at least seriously inconvenienced. And the other ring may give us the means to venture forth to other planets and star systems.
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© 2012 Kelley Marks