July 1, 2008 Astronomers say that Saturn's rings will disappear from view on Earth on September 4, 2009. The gases, ice, and rocky material that make up the rings will remain in place, but be invisible from the vantage point of Earth, as they do about every fifteen years. The rings are so thin that stargazers will be unable to see them through small telescopes.
Saturn … star gazers are crazy about this planet! One of just a few encompassed by rings. But could these rings be vanishing or are your eye's playing tricks on you?
Spinning in space, 893 million miles from the sun, lies the second biggest planet in our solar system. But how many rings of knowledge do you know about Saturn?
First off -- where is it? You can pinpoint Saturn as the sixth planet from the sun.
What are Saturn's rings made of? Light? Gases? Water and ice? Rock and debris?
"Rocks to boulder size objects, even up to small minivan size objects, all in orbit around Saturn," Phil Nicholson, Ph.D., professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Syracuse, N.Y., told Ivanhoe.
In fact, astronomers say that the debris, gases, water and ice that make up the rings are actually speeding around Saturn 60 times faster than a speeding bullet. So could these rings someday disappear?
"Twice in this 30 year period, the rings are on edge and they disappear," Dr. Nicholson said.
It's called the ring plane crossing. Once every 14 to 15 years, Saturn makes its way around the sun, turning it rings edge-on to Earth. The rings are so thin they can actually seem to disappear.
"As the planet moves around the sun, it presents the south pole of the rings to the sun and then presents the north pole to the sun and half way in between, when the rings are edge on, we just don't see them anymore," Dr. Nicholson said. "Saturn takes a little bit less than 30 years to go once around the Sun on it's orbit. So instead of it being an equinox every six months like there is on the earth, March to September, on Saturn, there is an equinox approximately every 14 to 15 years."
That means, Saturn's rings will appear thinner and thinner until on September 4th, 2009 the rings will seem to vanish … only to reappear three months later. Giving galaxy gazers something to keep an eye on.
ABOUT SATURN: Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. It is the sixth planet from the sun, and the second largest in the solar system, a gas giant ranked behind only Jupiter. Saturn is composed primarily of hydrogen, with smaller amounts of helium and other trace elements. Its interior is made of a small core of rock and ice, surrounded by a thick layer of metallic hydrogen and a gaseous outer later. Saturn is best known for its prominent system of rings, which are mostly comprised of ice particles, rocky debris, and dust. Astronomers believe the rings may have been formed from larger moons that were shattered by impacts from comets and meteoroids. The planet also has at least 62 moons; most of them are quite small, but the largest is Titan, which is bigger than the planet mercury and is the only moon in the entire solar system to have a significant atmosphere.
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF RING: "Einstein rings" are an optical illusion created when the fabric of spacetime is warped by the presence of massive objects, like stars or entire galaxies. The effect is known as gravitational lensing, and it acts like a giant magnifying glass in space, bending and amplifying the light of more distant objects. Light from a distant galaxy can be deflected by an intervening galaxy to create an arc or multiple separate images. When both galaxies are exactly lined up, the light forms a bulls-eye pattern -- the Einstein ring -- around the foreground galaxy.
The American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.