From the Earth, to the Sun and out towards the great interstellar unknown every object has it’s story. All these things making up the universe, our solar system and life on Earth is as much a part of this great infinite clockwork. In fact the word Cosmos means the universe as a complex, ordered entity, delicately tied together with forces and matter. We are the great paradox, the universe looking upon itself and learning, maybe giving it meaning. Epic and almost unimaginable events have unfolded to make the Cosmos as we see it now, stories have unravelled before there was even a human around to tell the story. Long after the human race is gone the great cosmic story will keep unfolding until time is meaningless. Slowly we pick up the events piece by piece and these Stories of the Cosmos tell some of what currently know and understand.
Gravity, The Celestial Sculptor
Beyond Jupiter, almost twice the distance from the Sun out in the cold and icy reaches of the solar system a world, so totally unique lurks out in the darkness. Hanging like some ornate masterpiece this is the realm of Saturn, a world instantly recognisable by the iconic rings that encircle it.
Saturn is visible in the night sky to the naked eye, but the it was not possible to see the rings until mankind put two lenses in front of each other to make a telescope. First observed by Galileo the rings were thought to be moons or other orbiting object – it wasn’t until 1655 that Christiaan Huygens could identify them as a disc of material.
It wasn’t until the 21st century though that we could appreciate the ring for what they were, a complex system of object ranging from the size of a house to particles of dust, shaped and formed by gravity. The rings showed us first hand though the camera of Cassini what the nature of gravity can be like, waves and gaps and intricate structures all connected by the force of gravity from Saturn.
But where did the rings come from? How did they form?
Origin of the Rings
A clue to the origin of the rings is in the brightness of them, they reflect almost all the the light back away from them – this means that the rings are new. When we say new in cosmic terms this means in terms of millions of years. The rings are thought to be between 10 and 100 million years old, when we think that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, this means the ring are very new and they’re not had time to collect dust.
Saturn has a large number of moons over 80 that we know of and its possible that one of these moons is missing.
Moons normally settle into orbits that keep going for billions of years, but it’s possible that one of Saturn’s moons got too close. As Saturn’s immense gravity pulled on the moon it would have approached what is called the Roche limit, at this point the moon would have been pulled apart and in little time spread out to form the great rings we see today. So gravity really is the great sculptor, tearing apart and then forming the rings in all their intricate beauty.
The rings however are not permanent, in the last flyby’s Cassini made between the planet and the rings themselves it discovered that the rings are ‘raining’ onto Saturn. Eventually in millions of years it’s iconic rings will be gone. Finally claiming all the material from the moon it destroyed so long ago.
© Simon Farnell 2013 – 2022
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