If extraterrestrials visited our solar system, Saturn would likely be the planet they would remember. The seven gigantic rings surrounding the equator make Saturn the most distinct planet orbiting the sun. This may not be evident in the images of the planet, but the chunks of ice and rock that make up these rings orbit Saturn at nearly 70 times the speed of sound. Moreover, each episode moves at its own pace.
“In a way, the ring system resembles a small solar system,” James O’Donogo, a planetary scientist at Japan’s space agency JAXA, told Insider. “Objects close to Saturn’s orbit rotate faster; otherwise, they will fall, while distant objects can move slower. The same applies to planets.”
In his spare time, James O’Donnog does animation on physics and the solar system. As he put his skills into acting at the service of Saturn’s rings, he created an animation (below) showing how each ring performs its own movements in a beautiful circular dance.
In animation, the line called the “synchronous orbit” coincides with the rotation of Saturn itself, showing the parts of the rings that you would see over time if you were standing there on this planet.
Saturn’s slowest outer ring rotates at about 10 miles per second, slower than Saturn’s own rotation. The interior of the ice and rocks rotates through space at about 14 miles per second.
Up close, Saturn’s rings are not as chaotic as their speed might suggest. According to James O’Donoghue, grains of ice move on adjacent tracks only a few inches per minute relative to each other.
“This speed is equivalent to taking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to the traffic speed in rush hour,” he said on Twitter. “So the collisions are not very spectacular.”
Saturn slowly swallows its rings
In addition to its incredibly fast movement, Saturn’s rings are very long and very thin. If you spread it out – as James O’Donoghue did in the image below – all of the planets would comfortably maintain their height.
But in total, the rings weigh barely 1/5000 the mass of our moon. “In other words, our moon can be used to make 5,000 Saturnian ring systems,” James O’Donogo told Insider. “This confirms the delicacy and fragility of Saturn’s rings.”
This fragility is the subject of scholarly research by James O’Donogo. While studying Saturn’s upper atmosphere, he and his colleagues found that the rings are slowly disappearing. Thousands of kilograms of ring material fall onto the planet every second. At this rate, he said, the episodes are not expected to last more than 300 million years in their current “complete” form.
James O’Donoghue says: “Saturn’s ring system is not completely stable, it is more like a temporary debris field from a moon or an ancient comet that got too close and shattered, not a permanent property.” “We can consider ourselves happy to live in a time when the rings of Saturn have such an important presence in the solar system.”
An original copy : Morgan McVale Johnson / Insider