Saturn’s Rings are amazing to behold. Since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, they have been the subject of endless scientific interest and popular fascination. Composed of billions of particles of dust and ice, these rings span a distance of about 282,000 km (175,000 miles) – which is three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon – and hold roughly 30 quintillion kilograms (that’s 3.0. x 1018 kg) worth of matter.
All of the Solar System’s gas giants, from Jupiter to Neptune, have their own ring system – albeit less visible and picturesque ones. Sadly, none of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) have such a system. But just what would it look like if Earth did? Putting aside the physical requirements that it would take for a ring system to exist, what would it be like to look up from Earth and see beautiful rings reaching overhead?
It is precisely this question that inspired Kevin Gill, a software engineer who performs science data visualizations for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to create “Rings Over Earth”. Using vacation photos he has taken over the years, and then tweaking them with Photoshop and the 3-D animation/modeling software Maya, Gill was able to superimpose Saturn-like rings onto photographs of Earth’s skies.
In so doing, he was able to give viewers a realistic idea of what it would be like to look up at the skies and see a ring system similar to Saturn’s – specifically from the locations of New Hampshire, the San Bernadino Valley, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, or Pasadena, California. And as you can see from the photos, the end result is rather breathtaking and inspiring.
The photos also show how the ring system would appear at different times of day. For instance, the photo of San Bernadino, CA, shows how the rings would appear in the sky at morning, with the Sun cresting the eastern horizon. The photo of Pasadena shows how the rings would appear at midday, with the Sun directly overhead and illuminating the rings.
And then there are the shots taken from the Griffith Observatory that show how the rings would appear in the night sky over downtown Los Angeles. In one, we see them descending towards the glowing horizon (top), with a crescent Moon not far away. In the other (above), we see how a section of the rings has been obscured by the Earth’s shadow.
And last, but not least, there is how the rings would appear from orbit, which you can see below. No doubt, such a ring system would play havoc with orbiting satellites and space stations (such as the ISS). But as Kevin told Universe Today via email, the project was not an exercise in plausibility, but merely for fun.
“I made [the pictures] out of a curiosity of how they would look after having done a few Saturn-related renders,” he said. “I rigged the camera, rings and Earth in Maya, placing the camera more-or-less where I indented the viewer to be (New Hampshire, Los Angeles, etc.) I used Photoshop to composite the Maya rendered rings over photographs I had taken over the last year. Like the angles, the lighting is more-or-less approximate.”
As a full-time member of the Jet Propulsion Labority who is responsible for producing visualizations, Gill certainly understands the process of bringing data to life. But as he admits, these pictures may not be an exact rendition of what a ring system would like to an Earth-bound observer. “I didn’t do any math in preparation to get the angles exactly right,” he said. “In fact, in one of the images, I actually moved the Moon out to the right of where it actually was to simulate a more ‘southerly’ view.”
However, there is a fair degree of scientific merit to this kind of artistic speculation. For starters, it is widely believed that at one time, Earth had a ring system of sorts, which was the result of a cataclysmic impact. This is part of what is known as the Impact Hypothesis of the Moon’s formation, where a newly-formed Earth was struck by a Mars-sized object named Theia roughly 4.5 billion years ago.
This collision ejected material into orbit, which would have formed into a ring around the planet. As this ring fell outside of Earth’s Roche Limit, the force of mutual attraction caused thse particles to accrete to form the Moon, which was then able to hold together.
Had it been outside of Earth’s Roche Limit, this material would have not been able to come together and would therefore have remained as a disc. This is the case for Saturn, which maintains a beautiful ring system within it’s Roche Limit, and several moons beyond it.
So while Earth, in some alternate reality, could have had a ring system, we would have paid for it by never having the Moon. Hence, there would have never been an Apollo Program, and we would not be currently contemplating building settlements there someday. Doesn’t exactly seem like a fair exchange does it?
But I think we can all agree, the idea of a ring system around Earth (and some artistic renderings of what it would look like) makes from some pretty nice viewing! And Gill is not the first to create photos that imagine what Earth would look like if it had rings. In 2013, veteran astronomy artist Ron Miller created a series of illustrations of a ringed Earth. As former art director at the National Air & Space Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium, Miller has been responsible for producing countless visualizations of what other planets would look like to the casual observer. You can view his artwork here.
And back in 2009, information provided by NASA”s Cassini space probe led to a number of animators producing videos of what Earth would look like with rings. One such artist was Roy Prol (aka. T0R0YD), who used 3DS Max to show how the rings would appear in the sky from different latitudes on Earth. Clearly, we all wonder what our planet would look like if it were a little less “Earth-like”!
Be sure to can check out Kevin Gill’s gallery on Flickr, as well as other works of astronomy-related artwork.