Out of all of the splendid ringed giants of our Solar System Saturn has the most extensive and glorious set of rings orbiting her equator. The dainty rings are made mostly of water ice and particles of rock and their origin is still mostly unknown. They are as little as 10 km thick in some places and are a staggering 250,000 km wide. That’s the same ratio of depth to width as a sheet of paper the size of San Francisco!
As if the rings weren’t already awesome enough, the Cassini space probe has data that shows that Saturn’s rings have their own atmosphere! The Sun’s ultraviolet light interacts with the water ice in the rings and produces oxygen in its molecular form (O2).
Ever since Galileo spotted the “oval” planet, we have been trying to figure out why our lovely Saturn boasts a magnificent set of rings around her equator. Fortunately, our technology has advanced enough so that we have been able to send numerous space craft into space to visit our celestial neighbors and , as you might guess, Saturn has been a point of focus more than a few times. Saturn was first visited by Pioneer 11 in September 1979, in November 1980 the Voyager 1 probe visited the Saturn system, and the Cassini-Huygens mission is currently in orbit as we head into 2013.
Saturn has at least 62 moons and some of them even orbit within the planet’s complex ring system. Enceladus orbits within the E-ring and we’ve recently discovered a set of cryovolcanoes at the moon’s south pole that shoot rather large jets of water ice particles into space and right into the E-ring. The rings also receive the debris from any meteors that strike the surface.
Enceladus is only responsible for a small portion of the vast rings that surround our lovely Saturn. We aren’t sure how the rest were formed, but we think they were formed close to the beginning of Saturn’s formation. Maybe two moons crashed into each other causing icy bits to fly into space or maybe a single moon crashed into Saturn, either way the rings are probably the single most beautiful object in our Solar System and I’m glad we are finally able to observe them so closely.