Why are Saturn’s rings disappearing?

Saturn is considered one of the most beautiful planets in our solar system. It is called ‘the jewel’ because of its glistening, glowing rings that surround the planet. The rings are made up of millions and millions of rock and ice pieces, and while they are not actually glowing, the light of the sun reflecting off of the ice makes them appear that way. Astronomers have been observing Saturn for many years, and they have noticed something that is very strange. The rings around Saturn seem to be disappearing.

Saturn, draped with the rings' shadows, behind the rings

Saturn is in orbit in our solar system and is the sixth planet. Planetary scientists aren’t completely sure how Saturn got its rings, but it is believed that another planet or possibly one of the satellite moons crashed into the planet or another moon and left an enormous amount of ice and rock debris. Over time, Saturn’s gravity pulled the debris together to form the rings. As we continue to study Saturn we have found out that there are gaps between the rings and the debris comes in a variety of sizes. Some of the ice crystals are as small as a grain of sand while others are as large as a house. Some of the rings are wide and other rings are thinner.

In 2005, the United States’ Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn for the sole purpose of studying our fellow planet. The observations and pictures that were sent back to earth were astounding. The found out that Saturn’s north pole is blue and that it has clouds that are a golden color. The rings around Saturn are in a disk shape, and the outermost ring (the E-ring) is made up of almost completely ‘new’ ice rock.

Four hundred years ago, the astronomer Galileo noticed the change in some of the rings. He made note that they seemed to be disappearing until they disappeared completely. This is what is happening now, and we know that this is a natural occurrence that happens every fourteen to fifteen years. It is called a ‘ring crossing’.

Side view of Saturn

Since Saturn has its own orbit around the sun, occasionally the orbit takes it to a location where the planet seems to tip just enough so that the rings slowly seem to be disappearing. This process will continue as Saturn moves through its orbit until the rings are completely invisible to any of us on earth. The process is temporary and as the orbit continues the rings will once again appear, just as slowly as they disappeared.

The bright reflection of the rings makes it difficult for planetary scientists to study any of Saturn’s 62 moons. During a ‘ring crossing’ the light of the rings have been almost completely dimmed and this is the chance the scientists take to get more information on the moons themselves. Without the light, the details of the moons are a lot clearer.

Since Galileo first made notes on Saturn, we have experienced 27 ‘ring crossings’.

So the answer to the question is that they are only disappearing for a short time. They will be back.

The Vanishing Rings of Saturn