The Rings of Planet Saturn: Particles of Water Ice

The Rings of Saturn

Saturn's Rings - Highlighted by the Eclipsed Sun

Did you know that Saturn’s rings are made up of particles of water ice?  Saturn has the most extensive and complicated ring system of any planet in our solar system.  These beautiful rings are primarily made up of particles of ice ranging in size from micrometers to meters.  They also contain dust and other chemicals.

Saturn’s rings were first discovered by Galileo in 1610.  They hadn’t been discovered before that because they can’t be seen by the naked eye.  Galileo used his newly invented telescope to see them.

It is widely believed that Saturn’s rings are made up of a series of ringlets, however, there is really a disk surrounding the planet with areas of higher or lower concentrations of particles – giving the illusion of individual rings.  The main rings extend from 7,000 km to 80,000 km above Saturn’s equator.  Interestingly enough, they only have a thickness of 10 meters.  It’s hard to believe that we can see them from Earth!

Close Up of the Rings of Saturn

A Close Up View of the Rings of Saturn

Saturn’s rings are very old.  There are two main theories regarding the origin of the rings.  One theory suggests that the rings were originally a moon whose orbit decayed enough for it to be torn apart by Saturn’s immense gravity.  Another theory is that the rings were never a moon, rather the same material from which Saturn formed.

January through July will be the best months to view Saturn this year. During March, Saturn rises at sunset.  Saturn’s north pole is tilted toward us now and the rings are slightly inclined.  By June, they will be nearly edge on and next to impossible to see.

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