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Saturn - The Rings

From Earth, only three distinct rings are visible: the A, B and C rings. The Cassini gap is also visible in larger telescopes, but we now know that this gap is not really a gap at all. More information can be found on the Saturnian Rings Fact Sheet.

There are 18 components to Saturn's ring system, from out to in:

  • E Outer Edge
  • E Inner Edge
  • G Outer Edge
  • G Inner Edge
  • F Ring
  • A Outer Edge
  • Keeler Gap
  • Encke Gap
  • A Inner Edge
  • Cassini Division
  • B Outer Edge
  • B Inner Edge
  • C Outer Edge
  • Maxwell Gap
  • Titan Ringlet
  • C Inner Edge
  • D Outer Edge
  • D Inner Edge

However, in reality there are thousands of individual ringlets that seem to form the larger ring patterns.

The rings look solid because they reflect 80% of the light that it receives but the rings are composed of dusty and icy particles in a variety of sizes from 1 cm to 5 meters with an average of 10 cm. If all the particles coalesced to a single body, and object of only 100 km in diameter would form.

Here is a portrait of the entire ring system:

The rings around Saturn (and all of the other gas giants) because the particles exist within the Roche Limit - which extends 2.45 times the radius of the central body. The rings exist in a location where gravity of the planet will not allow the particles to coalesce but far enough not to fall towards the planet. As a comparison, our Moon, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn exist outside the Roche Limit.

Here is a nice close-up of the Enke Gap:

The gap is actually the orbit of the moon Pan. A moon that is in orbit with the rings help the rings maintain their near perfect circular shape. This type of moon is called a shepherd moon.

Here is a nice close-up of the outer C-Ring:

Another close-up of the C-Ring shows just how fine the particles of the ring can be:

The rings of Saturn are no doubt one of the most beautiful objects in the heavens. Be sure to keep watch of the Cassini-Huygens webpage for updates photographs and data.

To wrap up the Rings segment, I'd like to share a favorite from the Cassini probe:

This image shows the rings of Saturn in true color, with Mimas in the foreground.

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