The Cassini spacecraft saw this glorious view of Saturn and its family of rings in 2013. The spacecraft was viewing Saturn's nightside, with the Sun eclipsed by Saturn itself. This view spans roughly 400,000 miles (650,000 km). The 'classic' rings, which were first seen in the 1600s, shine in shades of gold and brown, while the outer 'E' ring, which contains primarily water ice, looks blue. Prominent gaps are visible throughout the ring system. Earth is visible in the image as well, as a small blue dot at the edge of the E ring to the lower left of Saturn. [NASA/JPL/SSI]
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Moon and Saturn
The rings of Saturn are among the most beautiful objects in the solar system — and perhaps among the most ephemeral as well. They may undergo dramatic changes, with old rings disappearing and new rings forming over millions of years.
The main set of rings spans about two-thirds of the distance from Earth to the Moon. The rings are named with the letters A through D. The D ring is closest to Saturn, beginning just a few thousand miles above the planet’s cloudtops. And the A ring is farthest, with its outer edge almost 50,000 miles out.
Each of these rings actually consists of hundreds of smaller rings. They’re made of various mixtures of ice, rock, and dust, so each major set of rings looks different from the others.
That may be because they were born from different parent bodies. The rings likely are the remains of one or more moons that were pulverized by collisions with other bodies, or by the tug of Saturn’s gravity. The debris from such collisions grinds together, creating smaller and smaller pieces.
But some debris may eventually coalesce to form a new moon, which may then be blasted apart in another collision. This process may have repeated itself over the eons many times — giving Saturn a succession of moons and rings.
And Saturn is in good view tonight. It’s just below the Moon as they climb into view after midnight, and looks like a bright star. The bright true star Antares is not far below Saturn, and we’ll have more about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015