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Astronomy 2e

12.5 Planetary Rings (and Enceladus)

Astronomy 2e12.5 Planetary Rings (and Enceladus)

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the two theories of planetary ring formation
  • Compare the major rings of Saturn and explain the role of the moon Enceladus in the formation of the E ring
  • Explain how the rings of Uranus and Neptune differ in composition and appearance from the rings of Saturn
  • Describe how ring structure is affected by the presence of moons

In addition to their moons, all four of the giant planets have rings, with each ring system consisting of billions of small particles or “moonlets” orbiting close to their planet. Each of these rings displays a complicated structure that is related to interactions between the ring particles and the larger moons. However, the four ring systems are very different from each other in mass, structure, and composition, as outlined in Table 12.2.

Properties of the Ring Systems
Planet Outer Radius
Outer Radius
Jupiter 128,000 1.8 1010(?) ?
Saturn 140,000 2.3 1019 60
Uranus 51,000 2.2 1014 5
Neptune 63,000 2.5 1012 5
Table 12.2

Saturn’s large ring system is made up of icy particles spread out into several vast, flat rings containing a great deal of fine structure. The Uranus and Neptune ring systems, on the other hand, are nearly the reverse of Saturn’s: they consist of dark particles confined to a few narrow rings with broad empty gaps in between. Jupiter’s ring and at least one of Saturn’s are merely transient dust bands, constantly renewed by dust grains eroded from small moons. In this section, we focus on the two most massive ring systems, those of Saturn and Uranus.

We should mention that the four giant planets are not the only worlds in the solar system now known to have rings. Recently, rings have been discovered around the dwarf planets Haumea and Quaoar (distant worlds that are discussed in The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects) and at least one asteroid.

What Causes Rings?

A ring is a collection of vast numbers of particles, each like a tiny moon obeying Kepler’s laws as it follows its own orbit around the planet. Thus, the inner particles revolve faster than those farther out, and the ring as a whole does not rotate as a solid body. In fact, it is better not to think of a ring rotating at all, but rather to consider the revolution (or motion in orbit) of its individual moonlets.

If the ring particles were widely spaced, they would move independently, like separate moonlets. However, in the main rings of Saturn and Uranus the particles are close enough to exert mutual gravitational influence, and occasionally even to rub together or bounce off each other in low-speed collisions. Because of these interactions, we see phenomena such as waves that move across the rings—just the way water waves move over the surface of the ocean.

There are two basic ideas of how such rings come to be. First is the breakup hypothesis, which suggests that the rings are the remains of a shattered moon. A passing comet or asteroid might have collided with the moon, breaking it into pieces. Tidal forces then pulled the fragments apart, and they dispersed into a disk. The second hypothesis, which takes the reverse perspective, suggests that the rings are made of particles that were unable to come together to form a moon in the first place.

In either theory, the gravity of the planet plays an important role. Close to the planet (see Figure 12.25), tidal forces can tear bodies apart or inhibit loose particles from coming together. We do not know which explanation holds for any given ring, although many scientists have concluded that at least a few of the rings are relatively young and must therefore be the result of breakup.

A graph showing the locations of the ring systems of the four giant planets. From top to bottom on the left are the labels “Jupiter”, “Saturn”, “Uranus”, and “Neptune”. The y axis is labeled “Planet Surface”. A dotted line labeled “Tidal stability limit” runs vertically from the mid right hand side of the x-axis. The ring systems are shown for each planet, with dots indicating moons. Only very small moons remain to the left of the Tidal stability limit.
Figure 12.25 Four Ring Systems. This diagram shows the locations of the ring systems of the four giant planets. The left axis represents the planet’s surface. The dotted vertical line is the limit inside which gravitational forces can break up moons (each planet’s system is drawn to a different scale, so that this stability limit lines up for all four of them). The black dots are the inner moons of each planet on the same scale as its rings. Notice that only really small moons survive inside the stability limit.

Rings of Saturn

Saturn’s rings are one of the most beautiful sights in the solar system (Figure 12.26). From outer to inner, the three brightest rings are labeled with the extremely unromantic names of A, B, and C Rings. Table 12.3 gives the dimensions of the rings in both kilometers and units of the radius of Saturn, RSaturn. The B Ring is the brightest and has the most closely packed particles, whereas the A and C Rings are translucent.

The total mass of the B Ring, which is probably close to the mass of the entire ring system, is about equal to that of an icy moon 250 kilometers in diameter (suggesting that the ring could have originated in the breakup of such a moon). Between the A and B Rings is a wide gap named the Cassini Division after Gian Domenico Cassini, who first glimpsed it through a telescope in 1675 and whose name planetary scientists also gave to the Cassini spacecraft that explored the Saturn system.

Image A is a view of a portion of Saturn’s Rings from above. Image B is a view of a portion of Saturn’s Rings from below.
Figure 12.26 Saturn’s Rings as Seen from Above and Below. (a) The view from above is illuminated by direct sunlight. (b) The illumination seen from below is sunlight that has diffused through gaps in the rings. (credit a, b: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Selected Features in the Rings of Saturn
Ring Name3 Outer Edge
Outer Edge
F 2.324 140,180 90
A 2.267 136,780 14,600
Cassini Division 2.025 122,170 4590
B 1.949 117,580 25,580
C 1.525 92,000 17,490
Table 12.3

Saturn’s rings are very broad and very thin. The width of the main rings is 70,000 kilometers, yet their average thickness is only 20 meters. If we made a scale model of the rings out of paper, we would have to make them 1 kilometer across. On this scale, Saturn itself would loom as high as an 80-story building. The ring particles are composed primarily of water ice, and they range from grains the size of sand up to house-sized boulders. An insider’s view of the rings would probably resemble a bright cloud of floating snowflakes and hailstones, with a few snowballs and larger objects, many of them loose aggregates of smaller particles (Figure 12.27).

An artist’s impression of the inside of the rings of Saturn, showing floating chunks of ice floating together in small groups.
Figure 12.27 Artist’s Idealized Impression of the Rings of Saturn as Seen from the Inside. Note that the rings are mostly made of pieces of water ice of different sizes. Toward the end of its mission, the Cassini spacecraft got nearer to the rings of Saturn, but it never got this close. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL/University of Colorado)

In addition to the broad A, B, and C Rings, Saturn has a handful of very narrow rings no more than 100 kilometers wide. The most substantial of these, which lies just outside the A Ring, is called the F Ring; its surprising appearance is discussed below. In general, Saturn’s narrow rings resemble the rings of Uranus and Neptune.

There is also a very faint, tenuous ring, called the E Ring, associated with Saturn’s small icy moon Enceladus. The particles in the E Ring are very small and composed of water ice. Since such a tenuous cloud of ice crystals will tend to dissipate, the ongoing existence of the E Ring strongly suggests that it is being continually replenished by a source at Enceladus. This icy moon is very small—only 500 kilometers in diameter—but the Voyager images showed that the craters on about half of its surface have been erased, indicating geological activity sometime in the past few million years. It was with great anticipation that the Cassini scientists maneuvered the spacecraft orbit to allow multiple close flybys of Enceladus starting in 2005.

Those awaiting the Cassini flyby results were not disappointed. High-resolution images showed long, dark stripes of smooth ground near its south pole, which were soon nicknamed “tiger stripes” (Figure 12.28). Infrared measurements revealed that these tiger stripes are warmer than their surroundings. Best of all, dozens of cryovolcanic vents on the tiger stripes were seen to be erupting geysers of salty water and ice (Figure 12.29). Estimates suggested that 200 kilograms of material were shooting into space each second—not a lot, but enough for the spacecraft to sample.

Image A is a global view of Enceladus. Image B is a global view of Enceladus above a map of Great Britain, demonstrating it’s width of 500 km.
Figure 12.28 Enceladus. (a) This image shows both smooth and cratered terrain on Saturn’s moon, and also “tiger stripes” in the south polar region (lower part of image). These dark stripes (shown here in exaggerated color) have elevated temperatures and are the source of the many geysers discovered on Enceladus. They are about 130 kilometers long and 40 kilometers apart. (b) Here Enceladus is shown to scale with Great Britain and the coast of Western Europe, to emphasize that it is a small moon, only about 500 kilometers in diameter. (credit a, b: modification of work by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

When Cassini was directed to fly into the plumes, it measured their composition and found them to be similar to material we see liberated from comets (see Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System). The vapor and ice plumes consisted mostly of water, but with trace amounts of nitrogen, ammonia, methane, and other hydrocarbons. Minerals found in the geysers in trace amounts included ordinary salt, meaning that the geyser plumes were high-pressure sprays of salt water.

Based on the continuing study of Enceladus’ bulk properties and the ongoing geysers, in 2015 the Cassini mission scientists tentatively identified a subsurface ocean of water feeding the geysers. These discoveries suggested that in spite of its small size, Enceladus should be added to the list of worlds that we would like to explore for possible life. Since its subsurface ocean is conveniently escaping into space, it might be much easier to sample than the ocean of Europa, which is deeply buried below its thick crust of ice. Additional analyses of Cassini data in 2023 indicated the presence in the plumes of hydrogen cyanide, a key chemical compound for the origin of life.

(a) An image of the surface of Enceladus, from which a number of water geysers stream. (b) An image shows a water vapor plume jetting from the southern hemisphere of Enceladus.
Figure 12.29 Geysers on Enceladus. (a) This Cassini image shows a number of water geysers on Saturn’s small moon Enceladus, apparently salty water from a subsurface source escaping through cracks in the surface. You can see curved lines of geysers along the four “tiger stripes” on the surface. (b) In this 2023 infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope, we see a plume of water vapor (in blue) more than 9600 km long, extending out from the southern hemisphere of Enceladus (the moon is within the white box in this highly enlarged image). Mission scientists estimate that water vapor was being expelled at such a rate that the water could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just a couple of hours. (credit a: modification of work by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute; credit b: modification of work by NASA/ESA)

Rings of Uranus and Neptune

Uranus’ rings are narrow and black, making them almost invisible from Earth. The nine main rings were discovered in 1977 from observations made of a star as Uranus passed in front of it. We call such a passage of one astronomical object in front of another an occultation. During the 1977 occultation, astronomers expected the star’s light to disappear as the planet moved across it. But in addition, the star dimmed briefly several times before Uranus reached it, as each narrow ring passed between the star and the telescope. Thus, the rings were mapped out in detail even though they could not be seen or photographed directly, like counting the number of cars in a train at night by watching the blinking of a light as the cars successively pass in front of it. When Voyager approached Uranus in 1986, it was able to study the rings at close range; the spacecraft also photographed two new rings (Figure 12.30).

An image exposure of the rings of Uranus.
Figure 12.30 Rings of Uranus. The Voyager team had to expose this image for a long time to get a glimpse of Uranus’ narrow dark rings. You can see the grainy structure of “noise” in the electronics of the camera in the picture background. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

The outermost and most massive of Uranus’ rings is called the Epsilon Ring. It is only about 100 kilometers wide and probably no more than 100 meters thick (similar to the F Ring of Saturn). The Epsilon Ring encircles Uranus at a distance of 51,000 kilometers, about twice the radius of Uranus. This ring probably contains as much mass as all of Uranus’ other ten rings combined; most of them are narrow ribbons less than 10 kilometers wide, just the reverse of the broad rings of Saturn.

The individual particles in the uranian rings are nearly as black as lumps of coal. While astronomers do not understand the composition of this material in detail, it seems to consist in large part of carbon and hydrocarbon compounds. Organic material of this sort is rather common in the outer solar system. Many of the asteroids and comets are also composed of dark, tarlike materials. In the case of Uranus, its ten small inner moons have a similar composition, suggesting that one or more moons might have broken up to make the rings.

Neptune’s rings are generally similar to those of Uranus but even more tenuous (Figure 12.31). There are only four of them, and the particles are not uniformly distributed along their lengths. Because these rings are so difficult to investigate from Earth, it will probably be a long time before we understand them very well.

An image showing the rings of Neptune.
Figure 12.31 Rings of Neptune. This long exposure of Neptune’s rings was photographed by Voyager 2. Note the two denser regions of the outer ring. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

Example 12.1

Resolution of Planetary Rings

Using the occultations of stars by the rings of Saturn, astronomers have been able to measure details in the ring structure to a resolution of 10 km. This is a much higher resolution than can be obtained in a conventional photo of the rings. Let’s figure out what angular resolution (in arcsec) a space telescope in Earth orbit would have to achieve to obtain equal resolution.


To solve this problem, we use the “small-angle formula” to relate angular and linear diameters in the sky. For angles in the sky that are small, the formula is usually written as
angular diameter206,265arcsec=linear diameterdistanceangular diameter206,265arcsec=linear diameterdistance

where angular diameter is expressed in arcsec. The distance of Saturn near opposition is about
9 AU=1.4×109 km9 AU=1.4×109 km. Substituting in the above formula and solving for the angular resolution, we get

angular resolution=206,265arcsec×101.4×109kmangular resolution=206,265arcsec×101.4×109km

which is about 10-310-3 arcsec, or a milliarcsec. This is not possible for our telescopes to achieve. For comparison, the best resolution from either the Hubble Space Telescope or ground-based telescopes is about 0.1 arcsec, or 100 times worse than what we would need. This is why such occultation measurements are so useful for astronomers.

Check Your Learning

How close to Saturn would a spacecraft have to be to make out detail in its rings as small as 20 km, if its camera has an angular resolution of 5 arcsec?


Using our formula,
angular diameter206,265arcsec=linear diameterdistanceangular diameter206,265arcsec=linear diameterdistance
we get
So, the distance is about 825,000 km.

Interactions between Rings and Moons

Much of our fascination with planetary rings is a result of their intricate structures, most of which owe their existence to the gravitational effect of moons, without which the rings would be flat and featureless. Indeed, it is becoming clear that without moons there would probably be no rings at all because, left to themselves, thin disks of small particles gradually spread and dissipate.

Most of the gaps in Saturn’s rings, and also the location of the outer edge of the A Ring, result from gravitational resonances with small inner moons. A resonance takes place when two objects have orbital periods that are exact ratios of each other, such as 1:2 or 2:3. For example, any particle in the gap at the inner side of the Cassini Division of Saturn’s rings would have a period equal to one-half that of Saturn’s moon Mimas. Such a particle would be nearest Mimas in the same part of its orbit every second revolution. The repeated gravitational tugs of Mimas, acting always in the same direction, would perturb it, forcing it into a new orbit outside the gap. In this way, the Cassini Division became depleted of ring material over long periods of time.

The Cassini mission revealed a great deal of fine structure in Saturn’s rings. Unlike the earlier Voyager flybys, Cassini was able to observe the rings for more than a decade, revealing a remarkable range of changes, on time scales from a few minutes to several years. Many of the features newly seen in Cassini data indicated the presence of condensations or small moons only a few tens of meters across imbedded in the rings. As each small moon moves, it produces waves in the surrounding ring material like the wake left by a moving ship. Even when the moon is too small to be resolved, its characteristic waves could be photographed by Cassini.

One of the most interesting rings of Saturn is the narrow F Ring, which contains several apparent ringlets within its 90-kilometer width. In places, the F Ring breaks up into two or three parallel strands that sometimes show bends or kinks. Most of the rings of Uranus and Neptune are also narrow ribbons like the F Ring of Saturn. Clearly, the gravity of some objects must be keeping the particles in these thin rings from spreading out.

As we have seen, the largest features in the rings of Saturn are produced by gravitational resonances with the inner moons, while much of the fine structure is caused by smaller embedded moons. In the case of Saturn’s F Ring, close-up images revealed that it is bounded by the orbits of two moons, called Pandora and Prometheus (Figure 12.32). These two small moons (each about 100 kilometers in diameter) are referred to as shepherd moons, since their gravitation serves to “shepherd” the ring particles and keep them confined to a narrow ribbon. A similar situation applies to the Epsilon Ring of Uranus, which is shepherded by the moons Cordelia and Ophelia. These two shepherds, each about 50 kilometers in diameter, orbit about 2000 kilometers inside and outside the ring.

Image A is of a portion of the narrow rings of Saturn, showing the moons Pandora and Prometheus in the center and lower right. Image B is a closer view of the moon Pandora, next to the F ring.
Figure 12.32 Saturn’s F Ring and Its Shepherd Moons. (a) This Cassini image shows the narrow, complex F Ring of Saturn, with its two small shepherd moons Pandora (left) and Prometheus (right). (b) In this closer view, the shepherd moon Pandora (84 kilometers across) is seen next to the F ring, in which the moon is perturbing the main (brightest) strand of ring particles as it passes. You can see the dark side of Pandora on this image because it is being illuminated by the light reflected from Saturn. (credit a, b: modification of work by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Theoretical calculations suggest that the other narrow rings in the uranian and neptunian systems should also be controlled by shepherd moons, but none has been located. The calculated diameter for such shepherds (about 10 kilometers) was just at the limit of detectability for the Voyager cameras, so it is impossible to say whether they are present or not. (Given all the narrow rings we see, some scientists still hope to find another more satisfactory mechanism for keeping them confined.)

One of the outstanding problems with understanding the rings is determining their ages. Have the giant planets always had the ring systems we see today, or might these be a recent or temporary, feature of the solar system? Most of the research on this problem concerns the rings of Saturn, which have been intensively studied, thanks to data from the Cassini mission that orbited Saturn for 13 years. The mass of these rings is about the same as that of the inner moon Mimas, suggesting that they could have been formed by the break-up of a similar icy moon. Such a violent event would have been more likely early in the history of the solar system, when there was more debris orbiting the Sun. However, recent analyses of Cassini data indicate that the rings may be relatively young, less than a few hundred million years old. The evidence is based on estimates of the inflow of dark, carbon-rich dust into the Saturn system, which would gradually darken the icy ring particles. Yet the rings of Saturn actually reflect light very well, meaning they are not particularly dark. The origin and age of the ring systems thus remains one of the intriguing mysteries of the solar system.


  • 3The ring letters are assigned in the order of their discovery.
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