Saturn is among the grandest of the eight planets in our solar system. Galileo first saw Saturn through is telescope in the year 1610. He was intrigued to see what looked like ears on the each side of the giant globe that was Saturn. Once higher powered telescopes became available, astronomers were able to determine that, no, Saturn didn’t have a pair of ears, it had rings. Neptune and Uranus also have rings, but Saturn’s rings are the largest of any planet in our solar system. Using a powerful telescope, one might be able to make out two or three rings. Luckily, we were able to launch the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, which gave us our first close up look at the magnificent rings. There are six major rings around Saturn. We discovered that the large rings were made up of thousands of smaller rings. The rings are made up of pieces of ice, dust, and rock, where some are as thin as straw and others are as large as buses. All this material orbits Saturn like millions of tiny moons. Because Saturn is such a larger planet, it has sufficient gravity to keep the rings together in an orderly orbit around the planet. Saturn’s ring system starts just above the clouds and reaches nearly 150 thousand miles into space. Although some of the rings are very wide, none are very thick. If you were to view the rings precisely edge on, they would disappear.
Where did Saturn’s rings come from? There are several different theories. One involves the shattering of a moon. A satellite may have been orbiting too close to Saturn, and been torn apart by tidal forces of the gigantic planet. Or it may have collided with the planet, or possibly another moon. In any case, the pieces of the former moon continued to orbit the planet as fragments, and over time have been organized by gravity into a neat and orderly ring system. Another hypothesis is that the rings are made up of material that failed to coalesce into a moon during the formation of Saturn. This has merit, considering the gravitational field of Saturn.
As revealed by the Voyager spacecraft, the rings of Saturn have a great deal of complex structure, which includes gaps that contain strange ringlets that do not share the orbits of the other ring particles. The rings of Saturn are just another line on the list of fantastic objects that inhabit our universe. Seen through a telescope, Saturn is the grandest object in our night sky. And close up, Saturn doesn’t disappoint. Some argue that because of its brilliant rings, Saturn is the most beautiful of all the planets that reside in our tiny galactic neighborhood.