Image via NASA

For obvious reasons, Saturn is one of the most beautiful planets in our solar system. Although Earth is a stunning sphere, with all of its bright blue lakes and vast green regions of forest, it is hard to beat and immense rings of Saturn. Named after the Roman god of agriculture, the planet itself is about 95 times more massive than Earth. What’s more, while the circumference of our planet is a mere 25, 000 miles (40,ooo km), Saturn’s primary ring system extends a staggering The rings extend a staggering 74,500 miles (120,700 km) above the surface of the equator (that’s about 3/4 of the distance between the Earth and the Moon).

Retrograde orbit: the satellite (red) orbits in the direction opposite to the rotation of its primary (blue/black) via WikiMedia

Additionally, there is another ring that is at a distance of  roughly 7.4 million miles (12 million km) from the planet. This tiny ring is known as “Phoebe,” and it is tilted at an angle of 27° to the other rings and has a retrograde orbit (meaning that it orbits in the opposite direction of the other rings and planetary bodies, except for Saturn’s moon Phoebe, which also has a retrograde orbit).

As the above image illustrates, perhaps the most wondrous way to view Saturn’s rings is in ultra-violet light. Such images reveal a beautiful pattern of color sprinkled around the planet. This image was taken during the Cassini spacecraft’s orbital insertion and reveals the variations in composition in the A, B ,and C rings. From the inside out, the Cassini Division is shown in faint red at left. This is followed by the A ring in its entirety. The Cassini Division at left contains thinner, dirtier rings than the turquoise A ring, which indicates a more icy composition. The red band roughly three-fourths of the way outward in the A ring is known as the “Encke gap.”

In the ring system, there are billions and billions of tiny particles. The ring particle sizes range from tiny, dust-sized icy grains to a few particles that are as large as mountains. Most of the rings are composed of frozen water, and there are two small moons that orbit in gaps (the Encke and Keeler gaps, respectively). These moons are responsible for keeping the gaps open and clear of debris.

The rings are believed to be pieces of comets, asteroids, or shattered moons that broke up during the early days of our solar system. Ultimately, information from NASA’s Cassini mission will help reveal how they formed and how they maintain their orbit.

 


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