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The Rings of Saturn

Updated on October 31, 2011

Saturn's Rings

Saturn's rings have left many of us in awe of the universe. How could bits of rock, dust, and ice debris form such glorious rings? The rings of Saturn are like something straight out of the fantasy realm, enchanting us with it's fairy dust-like beauty.

The Rings of Saturn in Natural Color / Credit: NASA Cassini image

The Rings of Saturn in Natural Color / Credit: NASA Cassini image
The Rings of Saturn in Natural Color / Credit: NASA Cassini image

What are the Rings of Saturn made of?

Saturn's rings are about 99% water ice, which explains why they are so reflective. The bits of ice are also contaminated by bits of dust, rock and other chemicals, which affect the rings colorations. These ice chunks vary in size, from the tiniest specs to formations large enough to be considered moon-like.

The rings of Saturn also have their own sparse atmosphere, comprised of molecular oxygen gas, hydrogen, and hydroxide.

Saturn's rings also have gaps, some being rather large, that are believed to be formed by the gravitational effects of Saturn's many moons, by the small moons caught in the rings clearing their path around Saturn, and by the resonance between some of the ring particles and Saturn's larger outer moons.

Saturn's Rings in False Color used to Determine Particle Size/ Credit:NASA

Saturn's Rings in False Color used to Determine Particle Size/ Credit:NASA
Saturn's Rings in False Color used to Determine Particle Size/ Credit:NASA

The false color image above was taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which broadcast 3 different wavelengths through the rings to Earth. The wavelengths represent 3 colors, with the purple color indicating particles that are mostly over 5 centimeters in size, the green indicating particles that are mostly 1 centimeter or less, and the white indicating a particle density too high to be determined.

How did Saturn's Rings Form?

Scientists have for decades wondered how the rings of Saturn formed. There are several popular theories: one is that the rings were once one of Saturn's moons that drifted too close to Saturn and was broken apart by tidal forces, cause it to scatter into thousands of pieces, and already being so close to Saturn, these pieces were then caught between the gravitational forces of Saturn's remaining moons and the gravitational pull of Saturn, forming the rings. A variation of this theory is that an celestial object, such as an asteroid, collided with Saturn's moon bursting it into pieces, and these pieces were caught between Saturn's gravitational pull and the gravity of Saturn's remaining moons, and the rings formed. The second popular theory is that the ring particles were never actually a part of a moon, but are left over debris from the material that formed Saturn, which were caught up by the gravitational forces of Saturn and it's moons, forming the rings.

If the ring particles were once a moon of Saturn, it would have to had been one of the larger moons, considering the amount of captured debris. Also, the water ice particles that form the rings are relatively pure, causing scientists to speculate that the rings are a lot younger than Saturn, bringing into question the theory that the rings formed from left over debris. However, research also shows that some of the ring particles may actually be recycled material, forming after collisions of the older ring particles. This would explain the purity and youth of the ring material.

The image above is a close up of the B ring taken on August 25, 1981, by Voyager 2.

Saturn's Tiny Moon Pan Clearing the Way /Credit:NASA/JPL

Saturn's Tiny Moon Pan Clearing the Way /Credit:NASA/JPL
Saturn's Tiny Moon Pan Clearing the Way /Credit:NASA/JPL

The Gaps and Divisions in Saturn's Rings

The rings of Saturn contain many gaps and divisions, with the most significant carrying specific names, like the Cassini Division and Huygens Gap. The difference between a gap and a division is that a gap exists completely within a ring, while a division divides one ring from another. The rings themselves are represented by the letters of the alphabet. The rings A, B, and C, are the densest rings, and are called the main rings. The least dense rings are also called the dusty rings because many of the particles that comprise the rings are extremely small. The thin F ring is comprised of dense material and dust-sized material, so it belongs in a category all it's own.

The Cassini Division is a 4,800 km (2,980 mile) wide region between the A Ring and B Ring, and appears as a wide dark band around Saturn. The Cassini Division is not an empty divide, however; it contains many minute particles forming ringlets that run through the division.

A popular gap is the Encke Gap. This 325 kilometer (201.9 mile) wide gap exists within the A Ring and was cleared by Saturn's small moon Pan, which is roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter. There are also several small ringlets with this gap.

Wide Shadows Cast by the Thin Rings of Saturn / Credit:NASA/JPL

Wide Shadows Cast by the Thin Rings of Saturn / Credit:NASA/JPL
Wide Shadows Cast by the Thin Rings of Saturn / Credit:NASA/JPL

The Active F Ring of Saturn

The F Ring is the extremely thin ring on the outer edge of the ring system. This is a very active ring, changing its shape from the gravitational disturbances that surround it. This ring is shepherded on either side by a moon of Saturn. Pandora is on one side of the ring and Prometheus is on the other. The Cassini spacecraft shows how the F ring consists of one strand spiraling around an inner ring.

When Prometheus is at the farthest point in its orbit, it pulls material from the F ring, distorting the ring. Scientists believe Prometheus causes further disruptions when it gravitationally affects small moons within the F ring.

The Sparkling Rings of Saturn

The Sparkling Rings of Saturn
The Sparkling Rings of Saturn

Cassini Image Shows a New Ring Around Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft took the amazing picture of Saturn below, by coming dead center between Saturn and the Sun.

This amazing photo has peaked the interest of scientists, who see a new outer ring around Saturn. The faint blue trail can be seen in front of and behind Saturn, and is believed to be formed of dust particles of broken asteroids that have impacted some of the inner Saturnian moons. This image of Saturn also confirms the existence of two more rings discovered previously.

Check this out

Saturn from Cassini-Huygens
Saturn from Cassini-Huygens

Virtually visit the breathtakingly beautiful Saturn with this popular coffee table book.

Guests won't be able to see it and not gaze as these amazing images taken from Cassini-Huygens!

 

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      Anand 2 years ago

      Nice post. I used to be checking cuulinnoosty this blog and I'm impressed! Extremely helpful info specially the closing part I deal with such info a lot. I was looking for this particular information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

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      Maria 2 years ago

      There are several offiaicl NASA documents from the early 1960s that make reference to the C-8. Since Nova was a squirrelly term that was used for the next big rocket , and in the pre-LOR era it was similar to the C-8. There seems to have been an arbitrary dividing line based on the upper stages. 8 F-1s and 8 J-2s made a C-8, while an M-1 upper stage was a Nova. Yet, you can find documents that call the F-1/J-2 system a Nova, so who knows really.

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      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Great article. Thank you for publishing it. I came here on a quest, hoping to find all the lost socks in the Universe. But it seems the rings of Saturn are made of something else. There goes another Great Idea down the drain.

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      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Wow! What an incredible picture you have of Saturn's Rings in False Color! That is one remarkable planet.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I've looked through the big Clark telescope here on Mars (hill) and see the rings, but it's great to know what I'm actually looking at. Lensrolling this to "Life on Mars (Hill): Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, AZ" And five *'s, too.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 8 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Fascinating topic illustrated and explained very well!