What's the coolest way Saturn's rings could get destroyed?

Illustration for article titled What's the coolest way Saturn's rings could get destroyed?

Saturn's rings might be sitting pretty right now, but eventually they're gonna go. And we've narrowed it down to three spectacular possible fates, the last of which might actually be pretty cool to watch.


A lot of people have been moved by the sight of Saturn's rings. Galileo described them, when he first saw them, as metaphorical "ears." Another astronomer and theologian, Leo Allatius, thought they might literally be Jesus' foreskin (really). Most of us today just think of them as pretty. It's likely that they were formed when a moon or two was destroyed and fragments of it spread out, orbiting the planet spectacularly. The moon was probably like Enceladus, covered with ice. Many of the rings are white, with minor impurities in the ice turning them delicate shades of blue and pink.

Illustration for article titled What's the coolest way Saturn's rings could get destroyed?

If there's one thing that the universe hates, it's delicate pastels, and so it's natural that Saturn's rings aren't going to last. The only question is, how cool is it going to look when they go? The most simple and boring way for them to go is the most likely. The orbits of the debris will degrade, causing them to either plunge into the planet or fly off into space. From Earth it'll look like they're evaporating very slowly. Yawn.

A more exciting theory is they'll get worn away by comets. This might sound like the same thing, but spacecraft have observed orbiting moons causing visible waves and collisions in the rings. There's even been footage of sudden tears and gaps as objects plow into the rings, disrupting whole sections with their gravity. Seeing comets and meteors taking out huge sections of the rings would be a little like seeing whole stacks of dominoes fall with one touch.

The coolest way for Saturn's rings to go, though, would be if they stuck around long enough for the sun to expand. If more debris gets sucked into them, they might last that long. In order to see the event, humans would either have had to move to Mars or go live aboard spacecraft, but it would be worth it. Since Saturn's rings are mostly ice, they benefit from having the sun a good distance away. As the sun heats and expands, the debris in the rings would heat up massively. Although the heat and movement in the rings would dismantle them, they would keep trying to orbit the sun along with Saturn... for a while, anyway. They'd heat up, giving off light, and trail along behind Saturn, turning Saturn into the largest "comet" this solar system has ever seen.

This is yet another reason to keep the Earth livable while terraforming other planets. We do want to be around to see this.


Top Image: NASA/Hubble

Second Image: NASA

Via Weird Universe, Discovery, Big Question, and the BBC.



Derek C. F. Pegritz

OK, so first things first: we get me uploaded. I'll just chill in a virtual recreation of the early 1900s, and send out a shit-tonne of nanoassemblers to Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the Belt, which will begin scavenging for materials, collecting them, and making them into parts for my new "body"—which will measure several million kilometers in length and will be shaped like a giant Gundam constructed of millions of smaller plates and pieces help together with graphene ties.

Once Mega-Me has been constructed in Saturnian orbit, I'll send a copy of my mindstate to inhabit the giant, stupid, but awesome thing—the greatest construction in the history of Humanity! Then I'll just start eating the rings: drifting slowly in from the outer belts toward the inner with my big-ass mouth wide open, just munching away...until they're all gone.

And then I'll disintegrate the body and start shipping all the construction and ring-matter mass to the Inner System so the rest of y'all can build a matrioshka brain with it or something.