Saturns Rings

Like the rings of Jupiter, Saturn's are made up of billions of fragments on independent orbits. But Saturn's rings are very bright and extensive compared with Jupiter's, and this is because the ring particles are different. Saturn's rings are bright because the fragments are icy. The particles are also much larger than the dust-sized, rocky motes in Jupiter's rings, ranging in size from sand-grains up to kilometre-scale, flying mountains.

Saturn's rings are much more complex than was originally thought. Earth-bound observers identified three rings and labelled them A, B and C. Astronomers expected that these individual rings would appear smooth in close-up photographs taken by the Voyager 1 probe. But these close-ups instead revealed that the large rings are themselves made up of thousands of thinner ringlets. Evidently, therefore, the particles are not uniformly distributed. Some of the rings are relatively dark. They no doubt contain darker or smaller particles or are less dense. And in some places there are gaps where virtually no rings are seen at all. The most celebrated of these is the broad Cassini division, roughly 4700 kilometres wide. The Cassini division and other gaps in Saturn's rings are somewhat like the Kirkwood gaps. Recall that these are those regions in the asteroid belt where there are far fewer asteroids than usual. In the same way that Jupiter's gravity sweeps these gaps in the asteroid belt, so the gravity of some of Saturn's moons are responsible for the Cassini and other divisions. Similarly, the gravitational effects of small moons called shepherd satellites are responsible for keeping the individual ringlets so narrow. And Saturn has many moons to do this job.

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