Why does Saturn have rings?

Saturn is probably one of the top favorites of all of the planets in our solar system. One of the main reasons it’s so popular is due to those mysterious rings. Floating out in space, the rings of Saturn are brilliant and bright and almost seem magical. So how did Saturn get its rings and how do they stay there?

Saturn's Rings

Saturn is the sixth planet in our solar system. While Saturn’s rings seem to be the most noticeable, there are other planets that have rings. Neptune, Jupiter and Uranus all have rings around them, but you have to get a powerful telescope to actually see them. The rings around Saturn are the largest and the brightest of all of the planets, spanning 175,000 miles! To give you an idea of how big that is, it is almost three quarters of the distance between the earth and the moon. They may be wide, but they are also very thin: only 30 to 300 feet thick.

Saturn from Cassini Orbiter

Almost 400 years ago, an astronomer named Galileo discovered the rings and we have been studying them ever since. He didn’t have the kind of telescopes we have today, but he could figure out that there were seven major rings. As each one was found, they named it for a letter of the alphabet: A, B, C, D and so on. You might think that the ‘A’ ring would be the one closest to Saturn, but that’s not the case. They discovered the rings at various times, so they are named in the order that they found them. Thanks to various NASA space missions, like Cassini and Voyager, we have been able to get a more close up look at the rings and have found out some rather astounding things.

The first discovery was that that the rings are not solid, but actually made up of pieces of ice and rock. Some of these pieces are very small, around the size of a grain of sand, while others are as big as a house. The reason they are so bright is because the ice reflects light from the sun, giving them a brilliant glow. The closer we got to the rings the more we found out. They move and spin around Saturn at incredibly fast speeds and there are actually smaller rings that make up the larger rings. They call the smaller rings: ‘ringlets’.

Saturn with 4 moons

No one is completely sure how the rings were originally formed. It is thought that one of Saturn’s 62 moons may have crashed into another moon and broken up into small pieces. Another idea is that some of the many asteroids that circle Saturn may have crashed into each other and, over time, created the rings. Saturn’s gravity may have held some of these pieces close and, as time went by, they slowly began to cluster together to form the rings.

Another thing that was discovered is that there are spaces or ‘gaps’ in between the rings. This caused scientists to wonder why the rings haven’t been pulled in by Saturn’s gravity and to ask the question “How old are the rings”. Thanks to the Cassini mission, that got close up to the ‘E” ring. They found that this ring is made up of some of the tiniest particles and these particles don’t last long in space as they drift away easily. So the “E” ring must be really new.

Scientists are continuing to try to figure out why the “E” ring is still there. One of the ideas that they are talking about is the possibility of volcanoes on Saturn spewing forth new material that is constantly renewing the “E” ring. Cassini is still circling Saturn and sending more pictures to us every day, so we hope to get some of these questions answered soon.