Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

Astro-Porn of the Day: Saturn, Lord of the Rings

Earlier this month, astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope discovered a vast ring around Saturn, already famous for its rings. For example, in March the Hubble Space Telescope snapped an amazing series of Saturn's moons transiting across the face of the planet:

Click the image to see the story and watch videos of this event.

Little Enceladus and Dione cross from the left just above the rings, Mimas is on the right, and the huge moon near the top is Titan (and its shadow). Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, and its smoggy atmosphere is orange because of methane and nitrogen reacting in the sunshine. The reason we can see the moons in this shot is that Saturn's rotational axis is tilted, like ours, so its rings are tilted edge-on to us as they are every 15 years (they're at their fattest 7 years from now). Because the orbits of Saturn's major satellites are in the same plane as its rings, those rings usually obscure our view of moon transits. To see them in motion, check out the videos.

Speaking of rings, here's that shot I promised you:

Click the image to see the story.

This newly discovered ring starts about 6 million kilometers out from Saturn and stretches to 12 million kilometers. How big is that? As wide as one billion Earths side-by-side. It's too dim to see from the surface of the Earth, but if you could, it would stretch across the sky twice the width of the Moon. Whoah. Mind you, Saturn itself is only a dot to the naked eye. Phoebe - one of Saturn's most-distant moons - orbits within this vast ring, and scientists theorize that the moon created it.

Speaking of scale, here's a nice comparison shot between Saturn and Earth:

Click the image to read all about Saturn and its moons.

Makes me think about ringworlds or Dyson spheres. This ginormous ring would be teeny and invisible compared to a ring around the Sun. Consider that for a moment.

Tags: astronomy

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