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Starts With A Bang

Mostly Mute Monday: The Glory Of Saturn’s Rings

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The most spectacular satellite system of any known planet, Saturn’s Rings are a sight like no other.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” -W.G. Sebald

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute, via http://www.ciclops.org/view/7699/The-Day-the-Earth-Smiled?js=1.
Images credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, via http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA07874.

Saturn is remarkable in a number of ways; among all the planets we know of, it’s the least dense, and also the only one with a spectacularly visible set of rings. Composed of icy, dust-like material, these rings are not solid at all, but made up of particles that pass each other, stick together briefly and then fly apart once again.

Snowballs and planetesimals coalesce, only to be torn apart by tidal forces exerted by Saturn and its passing moons. Gaps in the inner rings are caused by the gravitational presence of moons themselves, while many of the outer rings — like Saturn’s E-ring, below — are actually caused by the moons themselves.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, of Saturn’s E-ring, with Enceladus as the brightest spot.

The main rings extend from 7,000 km to 80,000 km above Saturn’s equator: larger than Saturn’s radius. The ring system itself is just 10 meters to 1 kilometer thick all the way through, and is as old as Saturn itself. Composed of 99.9% water-ice, the ring system has thousands of thin gaps, and was likely thicker and more varied in the past. The once-rocky material has coalesced into moons, but the watery rings will remain for as long as our Solar System exists.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, via http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08389.

Mostly Mute Monday tells the story of a single astronomical phenomenon or object in visuals, images, video and no more than 200 words.

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