The Future of Saturn’s Shape in Our Sky

Saying Farewell to its Infamous Rings

By Google Arts & Culture

Mackenzie White

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Check out Saturn's thin, wide rings in 3D. 

Cassini orbiting Saturn (Illustration) (2018-10-02) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

The largest and most famous ring system in the Solar System, Saturn’s rings consist of billions of particles of water ice, dust, and rock. 

Saturn Recycling Rings (2007-12-12) by NASA/JPL/University of ColoradoNASA

Creating the familiar picture of large, smooth sheets from afar, these elements vary in size, ranging from the width of a grain of sugar to massive, boulder-sized chunks.

Translucent Arcs (13) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

The wide breadth of the dense main rings spreads from 4,300 miles (7,000 kilometers) to 50,000 miles (80,000 km) from the center of the planet. 

Postcard from the Ring Plane (7) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

However, their vertical height is impressively low, with a typical thickness of around 33 feet (10 meters). They are so thin that an observer near the equator of Saturn might not even notice them.

After two decades in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft reached the end of its remarkable journey of explorationAdler Planetarium

Using a primitive telescope, Galileo was the first to detect Saturn’s reflective rings over 400 years ago. Since this original discovery, Earth-based observations and spacecraft data have revolutionized the scientific understanding of the renowned disks.

Cassini Grand Finale Dive Illustration (2017-04-04) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

During Cassini’s “Grand Finale,” the spacecraft dove between Saturn and its rings 22 times as the first and only mission to explore this region.

Grand Finale: Cassini in the Gap (Illustration) (2018-10-02) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Amid these final daring maneuvers, Cassini’s particle detectors, mapping system, and cameras sent back data in real-time, solidifying the mission’s status as one of the most scientifically rewarding journeys ever conducted.

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Explore this 3D model of Cassini and learn more here.

Out of the Dust, A Planet is Born Artist Concept (2004-05-27) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

While researchers initially believed the rings to be the age of the Solar System (4.6 billion years old), more recent estimates from Cassini's discoveries indicate they formed closer to 100 million years ago, coinciding in geologic time with dinosaurs' existence on Earth.

A Stage for Shadows (14) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteNASA

Whether the rings are definitively young or old remains a topic of debate in planetary science, but how exactly the rings formed presents an even trickier mystery. 

Asteroid Family Shattered Past Artist Concept (2013-05-29) by NASA/JPL-CaltechNASA

Some research suggests they are the remnants of a comet torn apart by Saturn’s gravitational tides. Other evidence points to a collision between a comet and an icy moon or the crashing of two moons.

Saturn Ring Rain Artist Concept (2013-04-10) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/University of LeicesterNASA

While the past may be murky, the future is known: Saturn’s iconic rings are only temporary. Observations from Cassini and Earth-based telescopes found “ring rain”—material continuously pulled away from the rings, cascading down into Saturn.

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The likeliest culprit for the destructive process is the planet’s magnetic field. As sunlight and plasma clouds charge the rings’ icy dust particles, Saturn’s uniquely shifted magnetic field lines capture the pieces, putting them within reach of Saturn’s gravity.

Space Science (2001-01-01)NASA

With nearly 4,000 pounds of material falling per second (enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool), “ring rain” may be more accurately labeled “ring downpour.”

Planetary scientists suggest that the rings will disappear entirely within the next 100 million years—the geologic blink of an eye.

Learn more about Saturn and its iconic rings here.

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