Saturn is the second-largest planet in our solar system, adorned with beautiful ringlets. Saturn’s rings are one of the most magnificent sights that have fascinated mankind for ages. The gas giant, like the fellow planet Jupiter, is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium. While Saturn’s giant circling rings, several gaps and divisions between them make it the most distinct planet, it is surprising that these rings are made up of ice and rock chunks that circle the gaseous planet at nearly 70 times the speed of sound and move at their own pace. However, new information about its beautiful rings has surfaced recently.
According to a Business Insider report, Saturn’s rings are like a ‘mini solar system.’ The report mentioned Japan’s space agency, JAXA’splanetary scientist James O’Donoghue, who said, “In a way, the ring system is like a mini solar system.” O’Donoghue, who makes spatial animations about physics and the solar system, in a recent animation shows how Saturn’s each ring moves through its own motions in a beautiful, circular rhythm.
Watch it here:
The animation labelled “synchronous orbit” is synced up with the spin of Saturn. It shows which parts of the rings you would see over time if you stood at that spot on the planet. The animation shows the planet’s outermost ring that spins at about 37,000 mph (16.4 km/second) which is slower than the rotation of Saturn itself. The innermost chunks of ice and rock travel through space at about 52,000 mph (23.2 km/second).
However, up close, Saturn’s rings aren’t as chaotic as their speeds might make them seem, as O’Donoghuefurther cites that grains of ice on neighbouring tracks are moving only at a few centimetres per minute. In a tweet in June last year, O’Donoghue wrote, “Speed is like walking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic.” “So collisions aren’t very dramatic,” he added.
Icy ring grains on neighbouring orbital tracks, e.g. separated by a few meters, move at a few cm per minute *relative to eachother*. That speed is like walking 1 step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic in
… so collisions aren't very dramatic— Dr. James O'Donoghue (@physicsJ) June 14, 2020
Among other fascinating details discovered is that the gas giant is slowly swallowing its rings and in addition to being incredibly fast-moving, Saturn’s rings are very long and thin. After studying Saturn’s upper atmosphere, O’Donoghue and his colleagues found that due to such fragile spread, the rings are slowly disappearing. They now think that thousands of kilograms of “ring material” rain onto the planet every second and at that rate, they expect the rings not to last more than 300 million years.