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Saturn: Rings
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This highly enhanced color view was assembled from clear, orange and ultraviolet frames obtained 17 August 1981 from a distance of 8.9 million km (5.5 million miles).
This highly enhanced color view was assembled from clear, orange and ultraviolet frames obtained 17 August 1981 from a distance of 8.9 million km (5.5 million miles).

The rings of Saturn have puzzled astronomers since Galileo Galilei discovered them with his telescope in 1610. Detailed study by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft in the 1980s only increased the mystery.

There are billions of ring particles in the entire ring system. The ring particle sizes range from tiny, dust-sized icy grains to a few particles as large as mountains. Two tiny moons orbit in gaps (Encke and Keeler gaps) in the rings and keep the gaps open. Other particles (10s to 100s of meters) are too tiny to see, but create propeller-shaped objects in the rings that let us know they are there. The rings are believed to be pieces of comets, asteroids or shattered moons that broke up before they reached the planet. Each ring orbits at a different speed around the planet. Information from NASA's Cassini mission will help reveal how they formed, how they maintain their orbit and, above all, why they are there in the first place.

While the other three gas planets in the solar system -- Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune -- have rings orbiting around them, Saturn's are by far the largest and most spectacular. With a thickness of about one kilometer (3,200 feet) or less, they span up to 282,000 km (175,000 miles), about three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon.

Named alphabetically in the order they were discovered, the rings are relatively close to each other, with the exception of the Cassini Division, a gap measuring 4,700 km (2,920 miles). The main rings are, working outward from the planet, known as C, B and A. The Cassini Division is the largest gap in the rings and separates Rings B and A. In addition a number of fainter rings have been discovered more recently. The D Ring is exceedingly faint and closest to the planet. The F Ring is a narrow feature just outside the A Ring. Beyond that are two far fainter rings named G and E. The rings show a tremendous amount of structure on all scales; some of this structure is related to gravitational perturbations by Saturn's many moons, but much of it remains unexplained.

To enter Saturn's orbit, Cassini flew through the gap between the F and G rings, which is farther from the planet than the Cassini Division. As a safety measure, during the crossing of the ring plane, instruments and cameras onboard the spacecraft were shut off temporarily. However, the spectacular crossing into Saturn's orbit brought incredible information, images and footage. The instruments onboard Cassini are still collecting unique data that may answer many questions about the rings' composition.

Reference: USGS Astrogeology: Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature -- Ring Nomenclature

Saturn's Rings
Ring Name: D
Distance*: 66,970 - 74,490 km
Width: 7,500 km

Ring Name: C
Distance*: 74,490 - 91,980 km
Width: 17,500 km

Ring Name: Columbo Gap
Distance*: 77,800 km
Width: 100 km

Ring Name: Maxwell Gap
Distance*: 87,500 km
Width: 270 km

Ring Name: Bond Gap
Distance*: 88,690 - 88,720 km
Width: 30 km

Ring Name: Dawes Gap
Distance*: 90,200 - 90,220 km
Width: 20 km

Ring Name: B
Distance*: 91,980 - 117,580 km
Width: 25,500 km

Ring Name: Cassini Division
Distance*: 117,500 - 122,050 km
Width: 4,700 km

Ring Name: Huygens gap
Distance*: 117,680 km
Width: 285 km - 440 km

Ring Name: Herschel Gap
Distance*: 118,183 - 118,285 km
Width: 102 km

Ring Name: Russell Gap
Distance*: 118,597 - 118,630 km
Width: 33 km

Ring Name: Jeffreys Gap
Distance*: 118,931 - 118,969 km
Width: 38 km

Ring Name: Kuiper Gap
Distance*: 119,403 -119,406 km
Width: 3 km

Ring Name: Leplace Gap
Distance*: 119,848 - 120,086 km
Width: 238 km

Ring Name: Bessel Gap
Distance*: 120,305 - 120,318 km
Width: 10 km

Ring Name: Barnard Gap
Distance*: 120,305 - 120,318 km
Width: 13 km

Ring Name: A
Distance*: 122,050 - 136,770 km
Width: 14,600 km

Ring Name: Encke Gap
Distance*: 133,570 km
Width: 325 km

Ring Name: Keeler Gap
Distance*: 136,530 km
Width: 35 km

Ring Name: Roche Division
Distance*: 136,770 - 139,380 km
Width: 2600 km

Ring Name: F
Distance*: 140,224 km
Width: 30 km - 500 km

Ring Name: G
Distance*: 166,000 - 174,000 km
Width: 8,000 km

Ring Name: E
Distance*: 180,000 - 480,000 km
Width: 300,000 km

* The distance is measured from the planet center to the start of the ring.
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Last Updated: 3 Aug 2014