How did Saturn get its rings?

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imag­ine two ring par­ti­cles – lit­tle chunks of ice – in con­tact with each other near saturn. the planet’s grav­i­ta­tional at­trac­tion is a lit­tle stronger on the par­ti­cle closer to saturn. this dif­fer­ence is called a tidal force, and is closely re­lated to the tides in the oceans. Be­cause of tidal forces it is dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble for a moon to form very close to a planet.

saturn’s rings are prob­a­bly the rem­nants of a large icy body that formed else­where and was ripped apart when it came too close to saturn. in one sce­nario, a moon like ti­tan spi­ralled in through the disc of gas and dust that sur­rounded the young saturn. the moon’s icy shell could have been torn off, with the frag­ments go­ing into or­bit around saturn and the moon’s rocky core be­ing swal­lowed by the planet. the icy chunks would have col­lided and spread, with the par­ti­cles close to saturn be­com­ing the ring sys­tem, and those that moved far­ther out co­ag­u­lat­ing into moons. in an­other model, a large cen­taur – a body that es­caped the Kuiper Belt – was torn apart by saturn’s tidal forces dur­ing a chance, very close pas­sage. in a third con­cept, a moon of saturn was de­stroyed by a comet im­pact. as in the first model, the frag­ments in th­ese sce­nar­ios would have col­lided and formed rings and moons. though the cassini or­biter has vastly ex­panded our un­der­stand­ing of saturn’s

rings, we still don’t know which of th­ese ideas is cor­rect.

Luke Dones, se­nior re­search sci­en­tist at South­west Re­search In­sti­tute’s depart­ment of Space Stud­ies in Boul­der, Colorado

saturn's rings con­sist of mostly ice,rock and dust

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