An image of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Are they solid like the CD you used to make your model? Or are they made of many particles dancing in formation around the planet? They have revealed many surprising things about Saturn's rings.
Shop By Price
Key Facts & Summary
The rings of Saturn are the most extensive ring system of any planet in the Solar System. They consist of countless small particles, ranging in size from micrometers to meters ,  that orbit about Saturn. The ring particles are made almost entirely of water ice, with a trace component of rocky material. There is still no consensus as to their mechanism of formation. Although theoretical models indicated that the rings were likely to have formed early in the Solar System's history,  new data from Cassini suggest they formed relatively late.
In , Galileo observed the peculiar appearance of Saturn, but was not able to recognize the true shape of the features on either side of the planet. It was not until almost 50 years later that the astronomer Christian Huygens discovered that the shapes were really rings. One obstacle to the recognition of Saturn's rings was that they are seen edge-on from Earth every 15 years, and thus seemed to disappear. By , Jean Dominique Cassini had discovered a gap in the rings that now bears his name the Cassini Division. Numerous other gaps and rings were discovered by Earth-based telescopes through the s, so that by the time Pioneer 11 arrived in , the light and dark bands had their own set of names. The Rings of Saturn In , Galileo observed the peculiar appearance of Saturn, but was not able to recognize the true shape of the features on either side of the planet. Saturn Ring Plane Crossing, Voyager 2 Image showing Cassini Division. Pioneer 11 close-up of Saturn's ring structure.
Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun, with the largest planetary rings in the Solar System. Because of this, no one can be credited with first discovering the planet. Though it is the most distant of the visible planets, it still can be seen with the naked eye. The first telescopic observation was conducted by Galileo Galilei in Because of the crude telescope available at the time, Galileo failed to observe the rings of Saturn. He thought that the planet was surrounded very closely by two moons but when he looked again, the objects disappeared.