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This image of Saturn and its rings was taken by Voyager 1 in 1980.
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Courtesy of NASA

Saturn's Rings

Many people like Saturn's rings. Although Saturn isn't the only planet with rings, it is the only planet famous for them. Almost every image or drawing of the planet has the rings included. But few people know much about them or why they are there.

Saturn's rings are made mostly of ice and rock pieces. It looks like one big band, but is actually many smaller bands combined. The particles range in size from a couple centimeters to over a kilometer in size.

The rings are very thin. Although they reach diameters in the hundred thousands kilometers, they are no more than 1.5 km thick. So how can such a thin layer of ice pieces be so beautiful? The ice creates a rainbow effect much like a sprinkler does in the sun. The Sun's rays are refracted by the frozen water, giving us a colorful display!

An gigantic new "ring" was discovered in 2009. The Phoebe Ring is about 100 times bigger than the main ring system. Scientists think the ice and dust in the ring comes from the strange moon Phoebe. Particles from this ring might cause the strange coloration of the surface of Iapetus.


Last modified October 9, 2009 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA