Celebrating 400years of Saturnian ringyness
(and Nasa's Cassini probe that has revealed the king of bling in all his glory)
In the court of the planets, red-eyed King Jupiter reigned supreme. Nothing rivalled his size, the violence of his atmosphere, the pull of his gravity or the number of moons he held subject to his will. For billions of years his only rival in the heavenly sphere was Saturn who, although a gas giant himself, could never rival his brother’s might. So, like many a subordinate royal sibling, Saturn sought to outdo his brother in the only way he could.He gathered sparkling jewels which he laid about himself in delicate rings; he became the dandy of the heavenly court; he became the king of bling.
But for millions of years his efforts went unnoticed by peoples of the lowly rock-planet, Earth, until one day, 400 years ago, a little Italian chap called Galileo Galilei turned a telescope to the heavens and proclaimed that Saturn had handles. It took a few more years and some slightly more powerful telescopes before mankind identified Saturn’s rings for what they were: one of the most beautiful phenomena in the solar system.
But still Saturn wasn’t happy, he knew the stunning complexity of his finest decoration could never be appreciated from afar, so he brooded awaiting the adulation his finery deserved. Then in 2004 he got his wish when a tiny machine, sent by the man-things, arrived to study his magnificence. The machine was a probe called Cassini and, in its first six years, it has revolutionised man’s understanding of Saturn and his glorious rings.
It revealed the rings to be an elegantly complex system where glittering beads of ice collide, reform and collide again (ensuring the rings stay nice and shiny).
It revealed moons acting as shepherds, keeping the rings in check. Other, tiny moons play tug-of-war with the rings, in some places pulling material out into trailing tails and in others cutting lines though the rings while their gravity decorates the edges with waves. While, all the time, vain Saturn’s gravity tears apart any ice that clumps into pieces so large that might threaten the aesthetic of his design.
A series of special articles in today’s edition of the journal Science celebrates Cassini’s multitude of discoveries.
If you can't see them here, scroll down for some Cassini videos