Why Does Saturn Have Rings

Why Does Saturn Have Rings

Saturn has fascinated amateurs and professionals alike for centuries. As quickly as the planet’s ring system was discovered the popular question became ‘why does Saturn have rings?’ usually followed by ‘what are Saturn’s rings made of?’. Well, here are the answers to both questions.

The simplest answer as to why Saturn has rings and what they are made of is that the planet has accumulated a great deal of dust, particles, and ice at varying distances from its surface. These items are most likely trapped by gravity. The rings appear because of the wavelengths of light reflected by these rings of debris.

Some scientists speculate that Saturn may be too big. Its gravitational pull is so strong that it has been able to snatch debris from space. Some of which is as large as an entire building. That pull is why it has at least 62 moons. Those moons contribute dust to the rings as well as absorb dust from the rings.

A common theory as to how all of the material initially accumulated in Saturn’s rings is a series of asteroid impacts. Not with the planet, but with the moons around it. After the impact the remnants of the asteroids and the debris from the moons could not escape the gravitational pull of the planet.

One other theory holds that the rings of Saturn formed as other moons broke apart in ancient times. Additionally, this theory states that some of the material could be from earlier, during the formation of the solar system, and Saturn could not accrete the material while it was forming and it has been in orbit ever since.

No matter which theory you believe, the rings of Saturn are spectacular. After researching Saturn’s rings a little more, be sure to investigate the ring systems around Neptune, Uranus, and Jupiter. Each system is fainter than Saturn’s, but still interesting.

We have written many articles about Saturn for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the color of Saturn, and here are some pictures of Saturn.

If you’d like more info on Saturn, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Saturn. Listen here, Episode 59: Saturn.

Reference:
NASA

Saturn Fact Sheet

[/caption]
The following Saturn fact sheet is based on NASA’s excellent planetary fact sheets. Saturn is the 6th planet from the Sun, and the second largest planet in the Solar System.

Mass: 568.46 x 1024 kg
Volume: 82,713 x 1010 km3
Average radius: 58,232 km
Average diameter: 116,464 km
Mean density: 0.687 g/cm3
Escape velocity: 35.5 km/s
Surface gravity: 10.44 m/s2
Natural satellites: 60
Rings? – Yes
Semimajor axis: 1,433,530,000 km
Orbit period: 10,759.22 days
Perihelion: 1,352,550,000 km
Aphelion: 1,514,500,000 km
Mean orbital velocity: 9.69 km/s
Orbit inclination: 2.485°
Orbit eccentricity: 0.0565
Sidereal rotation period: 10.656 hours
Length of day: 10.656 hours
Axial tilt: 26.73°
Discovery: Known since prehistoric times
Minimum distance from Earth: 1,195,500,000 km
Maximum distance from Earth: 1,658,500,000 km
Maximum apparent diameter from Earth: 20.1 arc seconds
Minimum apparent diameter from Earth: 14.5 arc seconds
Maximum visual magnitude: 0.43

We’ve written many articles about Saturn for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the rotation of Saturn, and here’s an article about the atmosphere of Saturn.

If you’d like more info on Saturn, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. Listen here, Episode 59: Saturn.

Who Discovered Saturn?

[/caption]
Were you wondering who discovered Saturn? Well, nobody knows. Here’s the problem. Saturn is one of the 5 planets that you can see with the unaided eye. In fact, if you’re seeing a bright star in the sky, there’s a good chance it’s Saturn. It takes a telescope to see the rings, but anybody can find Saturn, even in a bright city.

So perhaps a better question might be to ask, when did astronomers realize that Saturn was a planet? The ancient astronomers believed in the geocentric model of the Universe. The Earth was at the center of the Universe, and everything else orbited around it in crystal shells: the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars. One problem with this model was the strange movements of the planets. They would sometimes slow down, stop and even travel backwards in the sky. And to explain this, astronomers had to create elaborate models for the planets where the orbited inside spheres within spheres.

Anyway, this model was turned on its ear by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 1500s. He placed the Sun at the center of the Solar System, and had all the planets orbiting around it. This nicely explained the strange movements of the planets. They weren’t going backwards, it was just a change in perspective, since the Earth is also going around the Sun.

The first person to actually look at Saturn in a telescope was Galileo. He saw a strange oval-shaped planet. He thought the planet might have ears, or two small balls on either side. Later observations showed that these were actually Saturn’s grand ring system. Galileo also discovered Saturn’s moon Titan.

Better observations of Saturn by Giovanni Cassini turned up 4 additional moons of Saturn, as well a division in the rings that would later be named after him: the Cassini division.

But it wouldn’t be until 1979 that the first spacecraft flew past Saturn. NASA’s Pioneer 11 spacecraft made the journey, getting within 20,000 km of the planet’s cloud tops. This was followed by the Voyager spacecraft, and eventually NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that’s orbiting the planet today. All of our best images of Saturn were sent back by orbiting spacecraft.

We have written many articles about the discovery of planets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of Uranus, and here’s an article about the discovery of Neptune.

If you’d like more info on Saturn, start with the NASA Cassini mission homepage. That’s where you’ll see all the latest news and photos sent back from Saturn. Then check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. Check it out here, Episode 59: Saturn.

Reference:
NASA

How Far is Saturn from the Sun?

Saturn’s distance from the Sun is 1.4 billion km. The exact number for Saturn’s average distance from the Sun is 1,433,449,370 km.

Need that number in miles? Saturn’s average distance from the Sun is 891 million miles.

Noticed that I said that these numbers are Saturn’s average distance from the Sun. That’s because Saturn is actually following an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Some times it gets closer, and other times it gets more distant from the Sun. When it’s at the closest point of its orbit, astronomers call this perihelion. At this point, Saturn is only 1.35 billion km from the Sun. Its most distant point in orbit is called aphelion. At this point, it gets out to 1.51 billion km from the Sun.

Astronomers use another measurement tool for calculating distance in the Solar System called “astronomical units”. 1 astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun; approximately 150 million km. At its closest point, Saturn is 9 AU, and then at its most distant point, it’s 10.1 AU. Saturn’s average distance from the Sun is 9.6 AU.

We have written many articles about Saturn for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how NASA’s Spitzer space telescope discovered a huge ring around Saturn, and here’s a cool movie of an aurora around Saturn.

If you want more information on Saturn, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We have also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. Listen here, Episode 59: Saturn.

What are Saturn’s Rings Made Of?

Saturn is sometimes called the ”Jewel of the Solar System” because its ring system looks like a crown. The rings are well known, but often the question ”what are Saturn’s rings made of” arises. Those rings are made up of dust, rock, and ice accumulated from passing comets, meteorite impacts on Saturn’s moons, and the planet’s gravity pulling material from the moons. Some of the material in the ring system are as small as grains of sand, others are larger than tall buildings, while a few are up to a kilometer across. Deepening the mystery about the moons is the fact that each ring orbits at a different speed around the planet.

Saturn is not the only planet with a ring system. All of the gas giants have rings, in fact. Saturn’s rings stand out because they are the largest and most vivid. The rings have a thickness of up to one kilometer and they span up to 482,000 km from the center of the planet.

The rings are named in alphabetical order according to when they were discovered. That makes it a little confusing when listing them in order from the planet. Below is a list of the main rings and gaps between them along with distances from the center of the planet and their widths.

  • The D ring is closest to the planet. It is at a distance of 66,970 – 74,490 km and has a width of 7,500 km.
  • C ring is at a distance of 74,490 – 91,980 km and has a width of 17,500 km.
  • Columbo Gap is at a distance of 77,800 km and has a width of 100 km.
  • Maxwell Gap is at a distance of 87,500 km and has a width of 270 km.
  • Bond Gap is at a distance of 88,690 – 88,720 km and has a width of 30 km.
  • Dawes Gap is at a distance of 90,200 – 90,220 km and has a width 20 km.
  • B ring is at a distance of 91,980 – 117,580 km with a width: 25,500 km.
  • The Cassini Division sits at a distance of 117,500 – 122,050 km and has a width of 4,700 km.
  • Huygens gap starts at 117,680 km and has a width of 285 km – 440 km.
  • The Herschel Gap is at a distance of 118,183 – 118,285 km with a width of 102 km.
  • Russell Gap is at a distance of 118,597 – 118,630 km and has a width of 33 km.
  • Jeffreys Gap sits at a distance of 118,931 – 118,969 km with a width of 38 km.
  • Kuiper Gap ranges from 119,403 -119,406 km giving it a width of 3 km.
  • Leplace Gap is at a distance of 119,848 – 120,086 km and a width of 238 km.
  • Bessel Gap is at 120,305 – 120,318 km with a width of 10 km.
  • Barnard Gap is at a distance of 120,305 – 120,318 km giving it a width of 3 km.
  • A ring is at a distance of 122,050 – 136,770 km with a width of 14,600 km.
  • Encke Gap sits between 133,570-133,895 km for a width of 325 km.
  • Keeler Gap is at a distance of 136,530-136,565 km with a width of 35 km.
  • The Roche Division is at 136,770 – 139,380 km for a width 2600 km.
  • F ring is begins at 140,224 km, but debate remains as to whether it is 30 or 500 km in width.
  • G ring is between 166,000 – 174,000 km and has a width of 8,000 km.
  • Finally, we get to the E ring. It is between 180,000 – 480,000 km giving it a width of 300,000 km.

As you can see, a great deal of observation has been dedicated to understanding and defining Saturn’s rings. Hopefully, having the answer to ”what are Saturn’s rings made of” will inspire you to look more deeply into the topic.

We have written many articles about Saturn for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the orbit of Saturn, and here’s an article about the temperature of Saturn.

If you’d like more info on Saturn, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We have recorded two episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. The first is Episode 59: Saturn, and the second is Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.

Source: NASA