The rings of Saturn are breathtaking. They are massive, they are complex and they are easily visible from Earth. We began looking at Saturn in earnest in the 17th century with the first telescopes ever made. We flew spacecraft past it in an attempt to learn more about its rings. They still fascinate us and they still hold many mysteries. When you look at Saturn from different angles it can be hard to tell how many rings the planet actually has. From some angles, it looks like one giant ring and from others, it looks like a bunch of tiny rings all circling together. So which is it? How many rings does Saturn actually have?
Saturn has seven main ring groups that are each categorized by a letter. The rings are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G and each one has its own orbit and different characteristics. The rings are named in order of their discovery so A, B, and C rings are the brightest and most visible while the rest are smaller, dustier, and less luminous. Each one of these ring groups is made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of individual streams of matter orbiting around Saturn which make up the rings as a whole. Most people will say that Saturn has seven rings but the true number is highly debatable.
What are Saturn Rings made of?
Each of the seven main rings is made up of tons of rocky and icy materials that are orbiting around Saturn in different positions. There are large gaps between some of the rings that are caused by embedded moons cleaning up the material and gravitational behavior which has kept some of the areas around Saturn nearly free of all debris.
There are also some faint and dusty rings that are orbiting on the outskirts of the main ring system. Some people consider this to be an eighth or even ninth ring. If you want to get super technical there are other named sections of Saturn’s rings including the Janus Ring, the Methone Ring Arc, the Anthe Ring Arc, and the Pallene Ring, and the Roche Division. Each of these is different features occupying a part of Saturn’s massive system of rings.
But, NASA counts the seven lettered main rings as the official ring count for Saturn.
Why does Saturn have rings?
When we look at Saturn one of the first questions that come to mind is, why does Saturn even have rings? Earth doesn’t have rings. It is an easy question that does not have an easy answer.
The fact of the matter is that nearly all gas giants have a ring system of their own. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune all have their own ring systems. Uranus’s rings, famously, orbit around the planet on the opposite axis as most rings we have found.
Saturn’s rings are unique only in that they are massive and that they are made out of particularly reflective materials. Much of the material that makes up Saturn’s rings is ice or are materials coated in ice. Ice is very, very reflective which makes Saturn’s rings so visible. The other gas giants have rings that are much smaller and fainter making them nearly impossible to see from Earth.
Gas giants have rings because of their massive size. These giant planets have a much stronger gravitational field around them than small rocky planets. This gravity pulls in all nearby material and holds it in orbit. That is what causes the gas giants to have rings, they are like vacuum cleaners for their local space gobbling up all of the ice, dust, and gas that is nearby.
It is still relatively unknown as to why Saturn’s rings are so much larger and icier than the other gas giants. There are many theories that have been explored by astronomers but there has been no true consensus on the matter.
Other Theories why Saturn has Rings
Some say that there were once many more large moons orbiting Saturn, like the moon Titan, but that during some turbulent period in galactic history, gravitational forces ripped those moons apart into tiny dusty pieces which then became the rings. A similar process is happening to Mars, albeit on a much smaller scale as its two small moons begin to degrade in their orbit and integrity.
Other astronomers suggest that Saturn simply exists in a super dirty part of our solar system. Not only does Saturn have massive rings but it also has the largest number of moons out of any planet in the solar system. This suggests that perhaps Saturn simply formed in an area of space that had a much higher concentration of nearby materials which formed its extensive moon and ring systems. Saturn’s large size and extensive gravitational field would have collected any nearby material that was not pulled towards Jupiter or Uranus. If there was simply more material in the area, it would have gravitated towards Saturn giving it more materials in its sphere of influence.
So Saturn has rings because, presumably, most if not all gas giants have rings. Why Saturn’s rings are so reflective and large is a subject for debate that has no clear answers at this time. As we continue to explore Saturn via telescope and flyby we continue to learn more and more about this ancient and fascinating planet.
Next time you look through your best telescope for planets and you find Saturn in your eyepiece. You will know a lot more about Saturn’s rings. I have already discovered Who Discovered The Rings of Saturn and here How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?. Want to dig a bit deeper on What are Saturn’s rings made out of we have you covered in our post.