The Surprising Thinness of Saturn's Rings

The Surprising Thinness of Saturn's Rings


As the photo shows from the Cassini Spacecraft, Saturn's rings are paper-thin relative to the ring-width cast as a shadow on the planet. 


Saturn is perhaps the most visually stunning planet in our solar system.  While the planet itself is nowhere near as colourful or unique as the appearance of Jupiter, Saturn's rings define its special place in the night sky. 


The rings themselves consist of numerous bands with the main ring system spreading across 300,000 kilometers of space.  Some of the fainter rings spread even wider to create a total ring width of 60.3 thousand kilometers.  

Above Photo by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

What Are The Rings Made From? 

The rings are mostly made up of icy-dust but some are boulder-size. Based on a study done by Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome we also believe that some non-water organic compounds orbit in the rings creating a reddish colour that sometimes pales to orange and pink.  According to their research, the red colour could also be the result of iron oxidation which we know as rust, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, that has the potential to give rise to more complex compounds.  


You would expect the particles in the rings to coalesce into a moon, but Saturn's immense gravitational field disrupts the particles and keeps them distributed across the rings.  While the rings themselves are stunning in terms of their size and variation, the most stunning fact is the remarkable thinness of the rings themselves.


In some areas of the rings the ring-thickness is as little as 10 metres, while other areas of the rings are up to 1 kilometre.   A kilometre sounds large but relative to the width of the ring it's thinner than a sheet of paper viewed on edge.  In fact, if you consider the size of an A4 sheet of paper, the thickness-to-width ratio is 100 times the ratio of Saturn's rings.  That's thinner than the edge of a razor blade. 


What makes this amazing is that the total width of Saturn's rings extend three-fourths of the distance between the Moon and Earth.  It's no wonder Saturn's rings  continue to be such a stunning sight in our scopes.  Unless of course we're looking at the planet edge-on to the rings.  In that case we may wonder what strange new world we are viewing.  Thankfully the shadow of the rings will also serve to remind us of this remarkable jewel in the sky. 


Photo by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Another remarkable photo from the Cassini spacecraft taken with polarized and infrared cameras.  Once again, the rings are razor thin relative to the wide shadow of the rings cast on the surface of the planet.  Titan dominates the foreground while Enceladus appears as a small speck on the far right. 

Make sure you turn your telescope to Saturn if you haven’t seen it before it will take your breath away. For more information on how to see Saturn have a look at this article Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter. How to Observe Them and Where to Look.

Or take a look at this: 

Saturn Floats! But What if a Sea Was Found Large Enough to Sail It On?

Find more on: Astronomy Science and News

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