25 Facts and Stunning Pictures About Saturn’s Rings

Posted by , Updated on May 25, 2016

Saturn is one of the most fascinating planets to professional and amateur astronomers alike. Much of our interest in the planet comes from its distinctive and iconic ring structure. Though not visible to the naked eye, anyone with even a weak telescope can make out the impressive rings. Though we may see the structures as one, massively wide ring orbiting around the planet, Saturn’s ring system is made up of a variety of different rings, all varying in density, thickness, and width. (The largest ring we’ve found is 12 million miles (7.4 million kms) wide.)

Made up primarily of ice water, Saturn’s rings are held in orbit by the complex gravitational influences of the gas giant and its moons – some of which are actually located within the rings! The facts about Saturn’s rings are made ever more vivid and real when accompanied by the pictures taken by countless telescopes and passing spacecraft. While we have learned much about the rings since they were first discovered 400 years ago, we are constantly improving our knowledge. (The furthest ring was only discovered a decade ago.) Be inspired with their beauty and majesty in these 25 Facts and Stunning Pictures About Saturn’s Rings.

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In 1610, famous astronomer and church enemy Galileo Galilei was the first person to point his telescope at Saturn. He noted seeing odd, ear-like shapes at the planet's side. Since his telescope was not powerful enough, he didn't realize the view was of Saturn's rings.

Hubble_infrared_of_SaturnSource: Space, Image: NASA
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Saturn's rings are made of billions of pieces of ice and rock, ranging in size from a grain of salt to a small mountain.

Saturn_Ring_MaterialSource: Space, Image: Wikipedia
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We can see five planets with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. To see Saturn's rings rather than just a ball of light, you'll need a telescope with at least 20 times magnification.

Saturn_eclipse_mosaic_brightSource: Space, Image: Wikipedia
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The rings are named alphabetically based on their date of discovery. Closest to the planet is the D ring, then comes the C, B, A, F, Janus/Epimetheus, G, Pallene, and E rings.

Saturn's_ring_planeSource: NASA, Image: Wikimedia
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Saturn's rings are believed to be remnants from passing comets (primarily), asteroids, or broken-up moons - largely because 93% of their mass is water in ice form.

saturn with asteroid in foregroundSource: Space, Image: Pixabay

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The first person to actually see and identify Saturn's rings was Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655. At the time, he proposed the gas giant had one solid, thin, and flat ring.

saturn with stormSource: Space, Image: NASA
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Geysers shooting out of the moon Enceladus' surface have contributed ice to the E ring. The moon is important to us as it contains oceans which may harbor life.

enceladus effect on saturn ringsSource: NASA, Image: NASA
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Each of the rings orbits around Saturn at a different speed.

PIA08361_Ring_World on saturnSource: NASA, Image: Wikimedia
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Saturn's rings are the best-known in the solar system, but the other gas giant (Jupiter) and the ice giants (Neptune & Uranus) also have rings.

Saturn's_Narrowing_Ring_ShadowSource: Space, Image: Wikimedia
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A planet's rings can act as a historical record, showing evidence of comets and meteors that plow through them on their way to impact the planet. Scientists studying Saturn's C ring have found ripples in its layers.

meteors colliding with saturn's ringsSource: Space, Image: NASA
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While one comet can leave a hole in a ring, a debris cloud - weighing between 220 billion to 22 trillion pounds (100B-10T kg) - collided with the rings in 1983 and threw them out of alignment for hundreds of years.

PIA01486_Composition_Differences_within_Saturn's_RingsSource: Space, Image: NASA
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The particles within Saturn's rings can sometimes pile up in vertical packs, like pieces of dough molded together, forming bumps over 2 miles (3 km) high.

SATURN_RINGS from CassiniSource: Space, Image: NASA
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Besides Jupiter, Saturn is the fastest spinning planet in the solar system, completing a full rotation in just 10 hours and 33 minutes. This speed gives Saturn a bulge at the equator (and flattens out the poles) which further accentuates its iconic rings.

saturn rings lit upSource: Space, Image: Pixabay
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Located just beyond Saturn's main ring system, the narrow F ring (actually three narrow rings) appears to have bends and clumps in it. This led scientists to hypothesize that mini moons may be trapped within the structure, giving the appearance of a twisted or braided ring.

F_Ring_Dynamism_PIA08290Source: NASA, Image: NASA
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To come into orbit around the planet, the Cassini spacecraft delicately flew between the F and G (further out than F) rings before landing in orbit.

cassini spacecraft and saturn ringsSource: NASA, Image: Pixabay
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Two gaps within the A ring - the Keeler and Encke gaps - have tiny moons trapped within them that keep the rings apart.

gap in saturn's rings with moonSource: NASA, Image: NASA
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Though the rings of Saturn project thousands of miles (175,000 miles, to be exact) into space from the planet, the rings are generally less than 30 feet thick.

Saturn's_Rings_PIA03550Source: NASA, Image: NASA
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Looking more like ghosts, cloudy spokes have been identified in Saturn's rings. The prevailing scientific opinion is that they are electrically charged sheets of small dust-sized particles which can form and dissipate over just a few hours. Though we're not sure what causes them, some theories include meteors hitting the rings or electron beams from lightning in Saturn's atmosphere jetting out into the rings.

spokes_cassiniSource: Space, Image: NASA
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Saturn's second largest moon, Rhea, may have rings of its own. No rings have previously been discovered around a moon and the evidence is so far weak, but evidence of electron depletion near Rhea and ice in a ring on the moon's surface (from icy ring material which fell out of orbit) leaves the matter unresolved.

Saturn_System_MontageSource: NASA, Image: Wikipedia
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Despite their apparent size, the rings are actually quite light. Saturn's largest of 62 moons, Titan, makes up over 90% of the mass orbiting Saturn.

saturn tilted with ringsSource: NASA, Image: Pixabay
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The Cassini Division is a 2,920 mile (4,700 km) gap in the rings, set between the main rings of B and A.

saturn's rings with obvious divisionsSource: Space, Image: NASA
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Some of Saturn's moons - notably Pandora and Prometheus - confine the rings and keep them from spreading out into space.

Saturn's_moons_Janus_and_Prometheus_PIA08192_(NASA)Source: NASA, Image: NASA
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Astronomers have recently discovered a new, huge ring around Saturn. Located between 6-18 million miles (3.7-11.1 million kms) from the planet's surface, the new ring is tilted at 27 degrees from the other rings and spins in the opposite direction.

Saturn's Largest RingSource: NASA, Image: NASA
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The new ring is so sparse that you wouldn't even know you were in it, even though it could fit a billion Earths within its scope. It was only recently discovered because its cool materials (at around -316° F) were only noticeable with an infrared telescope.

This diagram highlights a slice of Saturn's largest ring. The ring (red band in inset photo) was discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which detected infrared light, or heat, from the dusty ring material. Spitzer viewed the ring edge-on from its ESource: NASA, Image: Wikipedia
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Due to recent discoveries in 2014, scientists speculate that at least some of Saturn's moons could have coalesced and formed within its rings. Images from the edge of the A ring show what may be the formation of a small moon being pulled together by gravity. Since many of Saturn's moons are icy and ice particles are the primary components of the rings, it's hypothesized that the moons were formed by distant rings which existed long ago.

saturn's rings in ultraviolet lightSource: NASA, Image: NASA
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