Mystery of the Ears of Saturn

The Planet Saturn
The Planet Saturn has the beautiful ring system. (Credit: NASA)

Saturn is the second largest planet of our solar system but this fact does not make it unique and attractive. The most beautiful and amazing thing related to Saturn is its wonderful ring system which surrounds the planet making it the most mysterious planet of our solar system. This ring system is composed of many ringlets and gaps and it is inclined to the orbital plane of Saturn by 27 degrees. The theory behind this amazing ring system is not complete till today there are lots of mysteries behind them and their origin.

History of the discovery of ring system around Saturn is also very interesting. Galileo was the first person who turned up his self-made telescope towards the sky. In 1610, he looked at Saturn and found that there is something on the both side of Saturn. So he concluded that “Saturn is not a single body but it is composed of three bodies. Middle one is three times larger than the side ones.” He called them Saturn’s children. In 1612, the plane of the ring with respect to Earth got changed and ring got vanished. Now Galileo got totally puzzled he wrote that Saturn had swallowed its children in fear of losing them in the space. In 1613, once again plane of ring changed and the ring appears again so Galileo was not able to conclude anything from these observations except surprise. He also called them “Ears of Saturn”.

In 1655, Christiaan Huygens used the 50 times more powerful telescope than that used by Galileo and concluded, “Saturn is surrounded by thin and flat rings which are somewhere touched to Saturn and inclined to elliptic.” Robert Hooke also noted the casting of the shadow of Saturn on the plane of the ring. In 1675, Giovanni Domenico Cassini noted that Saturn ring is composed of many ringlets with gaps between them. The largest gap was named Cassini Division after his name. Its width is 4800 km and is situated between ring A and Ring B.

In 1787, Pierre-Simon Laplace suggested that ring system of Saturn is composed of many solid ringlets. In 1859, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated that ring of Saturn cannot be composed of solid ringlets otherwise they will become unstable and break apart, so they must be made up of the tiny particles orbiting Saturn independently.

There are many ringlets and gaps between them if we take broadly then these are ring D, C, B, Cassini Division, A, F, G and E. The main ring of Saturn is extends from 7,000 km to 80,000 km and its average thickness varies from 10 m to 1 km. Its mass is around 3 x 109 kg just little less than the mass of moon Mimas. The ring is composed of 99.9 % particles of ice, the small amount of silicate and tholin.

Rings of Saturn
Rings of Saturn. (Credit: Stellarium)

You will be amazed to know that ring of Saturn also has an atmosphere. The main component of the atmosphere of ring is molecular oxygen (gas) which forms by the action of the ultra violet rays of sun on the water molecule of ring but the density of this oxygen gas is very negligible means if you condense all the gas on the ring its thickness will be about the size of atom. Hydrogen gas is also present there which is formed by the action of energetic ions bombarding water molecules, these ions are released from the moon Enceladus. Despite the negligible amount of the atmosphere, this was detected from Earth using Hubble telescope. Finally one of most questions is still there which is, how did the ring get formed?

Finally one of most questions is still there which is, how did the ring get formed?

There are mainly two theories for reasoning first one is that there was a moon of Saturn named Veritas whose orbit was decaying means its size was decreasing and thus the moon came closer and closer to Saturn and finally it breaks apart into pieces by strong tidal forces exerted by Saturn. Sometimes a still variation in this theory is also observed that is, the moon was not disintegrated but the core was spirally merged into the Saturn and the outer layer of ice of that moon remain there, orbiting Saturn which developed into the ring that we can see today . That’s why the ring is mainly composed of water and rocky particles are very less.

The second theory says that ring is not the remnants of any moon but this formed from the nebular material from which Saturn was formed.

Anyway but Saturn is still the most amazing planet of Solar System because nature has decorated it with the beautiful ring system. The mystery behind this planet is not solved till today. Saturn is one of the interesting area of research for scientist today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *