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The Rings of Saturn

All the Gas giants of our Solar System have rings, but the ones round Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are relatively small.  Saturn’s rings are magnificent.


The first reference to Saturn’s rings appears to be from Galileo.  In 1610 he looked at Saturn through his telescope.  He was puzzled by what he saw.  He described the rings variously as ears, handles and arms. He also said that the planet appeared to be triple-bodied.   He also speculated that Saturn might have two large moons.

His telescope was not very powerful, and he was also hampered in his observations by the fact that the angle the rings are seen from, looking from the Earth changes.  If we are looking at the rings when they are completely edge on, they are difficult to see at all.

In 1659, Christiaan Huygens looked at the rings with a more powerful telescope and saw that they are flat rings round the planet.

Flat Rings

The rings are very big in the sense that they look big, looking at them flat.  The closest ring is something like 7000 Kilometres from the Planet while the edge of the furthest one may be 250,000 Kilometres from Saturn’s surface.  However, many of the rings seem to be only about 10 Metres thick.


The total amount of matter in the rings may only be about the same as a small moon, perhaps one with a diameter of about 400 Kilometres although different measurements and their interpretations give quite different answers.


The main material in the rings appears to be water ice.


This is another thing we do not know.  Different theories about the rings give ages of between 100 million and 4 billion years.

Life in the Rings

This might sound like a strange idea, and probably few serious scientists would think it is likely, but we really do not know how widespread life is in the universe, or what forms it can take.  Ben Bova introduced the idea of life in the rings of Saturn.

Picture from NASA
Saturn's Rings
By NASA/JPL (NASA Image of the Day)
[see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons