Imagine you’re a hotshot space pilot on approach to Saturn. You know perfectly well you’re not supposed to fly through Saturn’s rings. The rings are protected by an intergalactic trust. You could get in a lot of trouble.
Okay, if we’re doing this, let’s do it the awesome way! The thickness and density of the rings varies somewhat, so let’s aim for one of the main rings (which astronomers call the A-ring, B-ring, and C-ring). In fact, aim for the middle band of the B-ring. That’s one of the thickest, densest parts.
Saturn’s rings are a mix of stuff, including rock and organic compounds, but most of the material is water ice. According to one source I found, the rings are composed of 90 to 95% ice. Most of this ice is in the form of teeny, tiny crystals, so basically we’re flying into a vast expanse of snowflakes.
Some of these snowflakes are floating free. Others have clumped together, forming larger objects. In 2005, the Cassini mission beamed radio waves at Saturn’s rings. By seeing which wavelengths bounced back, scientists got a rough estimate of the sizes of these tiny and sometimes not-so-tiny objects.
In the B-ring, most of the objects we’ll encounter will be at least 5 centimeters in diameter. Many will be larger than that. Perhaps much larger. Unfortunately, the ring particles in the middle of the B-ring are so close together that virtually all of Cassini’s radio waves bounced back. So it’s hard to say how large individual objects might be in there.
I guess we’re about to find out!
Don’t panic. It seems objects in Saturn’s rings are continuously coalescing and disintegrating due to collisions with each other and interactions with Saturn’s gravity. That suggests these objects are merely loose rubble piles of tiny ice crystals. Collide with one, and it should just burst apart like a lightly packed snowball.
Still, you should probably slow down a bit. At your current velocity, collisions with even the tiniest speck of dust could puncture your spaceship’s hull. Seriously. You need to slow down! Look out for the—!
Disclaimer: Today’s post is not intended as advice on whether or not you should attempt to fly through Saturn’s rings. If you decide to fly through Saturn’s rings, you do so at your own risk, and the author of this post cannot be held liable for any damages that may ensue.
Particle Sizes in Saturn’s Rings from Astronomy Picture of the Day.
Saturn’s Rings from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (great chart to help you identify each of Saturn’s rings).
Saturn Rapidly Creates and Destroys Its Moonlets from Discovery News.