If star-jumping aliens ever visited our solar system, Saturn is probably the planet they would remember.
The seven giant rings that surround its equator make Saturn the most distinct planet orbiting the Sun. It may not be obvious in the images of the hula-hoop planet, but the chunks of ice and rock that make up those rings circle Saturn at speeds almost 70 times the speed of sound. Plus, each ring moves at its own pace.
“In a way, the ring system is like a mini solar system”, James O’Donoghuea planetary scientist with Japan’s JAXA space agency told Insider.
“Objects close to Saturn orbit faster otherwise they would fall, while objects farther away can afford to go slower. This is the same for planets.”
In his spare time, O’Donoghue performs animations on physics and the solar system. Some of his others have shown that there is no “dark side” to the Moon, that the true center of the Solar System is not the Sun, and that the Earth has two types of days.
When he put his skills to represent the rings of Saturn to work, O’Donoghue created an animation (below) that shows how each ring moves through its own movements in a beautiful circular dance.
In the animation, the line labeled “synchronous orbit” is in sync with Saturn’s spin, so it shows what parts of the rings you would see over time if you were at that point on the planet.
Countless chunks of icy water make up Saturn’s rings, which range in size from microscopic icy dust to bus-sized icebergs. Each piece has its own orbit: near Saturn they orbit fast, far away they orbit slow. The major segments of the ring are A through F (labeled in order of discovery) pic.twitter.com/h4QjIz3eY8
– Dr. James O’Donoghue (@physicsJ) June 14, 2020
Saturn’s slowest outer ring rotates at about 37,000 mph (16.4 kilometers per second), slower than Saturn’s own rotation. The innermost chunks of ice and rock traverse space at approximately 52,000 mph (23.2 kilometers per second).
Up close, Saturn’s rings are not as chaotic as their speeds might make them appear. According to O’Donoghue, the ice grains on neighboring slopes only move at a few inches per minute relative to each other.
“That speed is like walking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic,” saying On twitter. “So the collisions are not very dramatic.”
Saturn is slowly swallowing its rings
In addition to moving incredibly fast, Saturn’s rings are very long and thin. If you unfolded them, as O’Donoghue did in the image below, all the planets would fit comfortably within their length.
But in total, the rings are only 1 / 5,000 the mass of our Moon.
“In other words, our Moon could be used to make 5,000 Saturn ring systems,” O’Donoghue told Insider. “This highlights how extremely thin and fragile Saturn’s rings are.”
Saturn’s rings are incredibly delicate – they only have a mass 3 times that of Earth’s atmosphere
Rings of Saturn → 15 × 10¹⁸ kg
Earth’s atmosphere → 5 × 10¹⁸ kg
Formed when dinosaurs were exterminated, they will live only 100 million more years, surrounding Saturn for only 5% of their life. pic.twitter.com/ZB1bI1TBH0
– Dr. James O’Donoghue (@physicsJ) Aug 15, 2019
This fragility is a subject of scientific investigation of O’Donoghue. By studying Saturn’s upper atmosphere, he and his colleagues discovered that the rings are slowly disappearing. Thousands of kilograms of annular material rain down on the planet every second. At that rate, the rings shouldn’t last more than 300 million years in their current “full” form, he said.
Saturn’s rings are a rainbow of ice that is brought into position by gravity. Here’s a 17-megapixel natural-color image taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The distances listed are from the center of Saturn; the rings are ~ 5 Earths wide here! Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Sci Inst / CICLOPS pic.twitter.com/boGiweQE12
– Dr. James O’Donoghue (@physicsJ) January 2, 2021
“Saturn’s ring system is not exactly stable, it looks more like a temporary debris field from some ancient moon or comet that got too close and broke apart, rather than a permanent feature,” O’Donoghue added. “We can consider ourselves lucky to live in a time when the rings of Saturn have such an enormous presence in the solar system.”
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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