Depending on your perspective we either live in a big world or a small one. To scientists who study the very small, like microbiologists, our world is a gigantic petri-dish swarming with countless organisms.
But to scientists who study the very large, like astronomers, Earth is unimaginable tiny when compared to what else is out there: larger planets, stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters.
Saturn’s rings, although enormous, are too faint to see from Earth with the naked eye. The first human to ever observe them was Galileo Galilei in 1610 with his home-made telescope, but the Italian physicist died before he could determine what they were. Another 45 years passed before Dutch mathematician, Christiaan Huygens, first suggested they were rings instead of planets as Galilei had initially guessed.
The sixth planet from the sun, Saturn is famous for flaunting the largest, most extensive, and arguably most beautiful set of rings within our solar system. Since Galileo’s discovery, Saturn’s rings have been extensively labelled, categorized, and studied. Astronomers have names for the rings as well as the gaps in between them, some of which can be seen in the labelled map below (the closest rings to Saturn at the far left):
The largest gap that shows up as the black band in the middle of the rings is known as the Cassini Division and has a total area almost large enough to fit the United States. More impressive is how many Earths it would take to cover the length of the rings.
The rings are made of particles of ice as small as a pinpoint to as large as a few feet across. Despite mapping the system out in incredible detail, scientists aren’t certain how this spectacular ring system formed.
One theory is that the rings formed within the last billion years or so when comets, asteroids, and possibly moons were ripped apart by the gaseous planet’s strong gravity. But if this were the case, then the largest planet, Jupiter, should have a similar, if not larger, ring system.
Another explanation is that the rings arose early on during the formation of our solar system, around 4 billion years ago, and are left-over material from when Saturn formed.
Regardless of how the rings formed, there’s no denying their beauty. In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft reached orbit around Saturn after a seven-year journey. The spacecraft is the fourth to reach Saturn and continues to orbit the planet today, studying its rings, moons, and Saturn itself.
The image above, taken by Cassini in August, 2013, is a silhouette with the sun located behind the planet. You get a breathtaking look at the rings and their shadow across the surface of Saturn. In the upper right of the image, you can see Saturn’s moon Tethys, which has more mass than the whole Saturn ring system.
Although Saturn’s rings cover a large space, they’re light and extremely thin, measuring about 0.6 miles thick. Earth is approximately 200,000 times more massive than the rings. So, while Saturn’s rings might dwarf us in size, we would dominate in a test of the most massive.
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