Icy Rings of Dust… What A Wonderful World

June 13, 2016
The jewel of the solar system.Credit Cassin-Huygens / nasa
The jewel of the solar system.

This week Hal revisits Saturn.  

We’ve talked before about things that make you say wow, when you see them in the night sky. For lots of people, including lots of astronomers, the most wow – inducing object of all is visible to southern Colorado listeners right now – the amazing planet Saturn.

For much of human history, Saturn represented the end of the known universe. It was the most distant planet visible to the naked eye, and it appeared to be wandering among the stars. With advances in astronomy, and better telescopes, Saturn was given its proper place, as the second largest planet in the Solar System, and the sixth closest to the Sun. But for most people, of course, what makes Saturn so wondrous is its amazing system of rings.

Because Saturn is tilted, relative to it’s orbit like all planets, we see the rings appear to open and close, as Saturn and the Earth orbit the Sun. Right now is about the best time to see the rings, as they are almost as open as they ever get, relative to viewers on Earth.

The rings are made up of trillions of bits of ice and rock, all orbiting Saturn. They vary in size from small dust motes, to grains of sand, rocks, and some that may be as big as a building, or even up to half a mile across.

But one of the amazing things about the rings is how thin they are. This vast array of objects orbiting Saturn are about 175,000 miles across, but only about 3000 feet thick. If you walked a bit over a half mile today, you’ve walked far enough to have walked through Saturn’s rings.

And they also complicate the question of how many moons does Saturn truly have? The answer is either about 62, or a couple trillion. It all depends on how you count. But no matter how you count, Saturn sure has a nice ring to it.

If you’d like to take a closer look at Saturn, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit CSASTRO.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties! 

This is Hal Bidlack for the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, telling you to keep looking up, Southern Colorado!