Saturn, the Magician

Posted August 11, 2009 by User 1

It's that time of the decade, the time our sixth planet makes its brilliant rings go poof! Actually, it won't do so again until 2024.

So what exactly happens? Like every other object in the solar system, Saturn is tilted, by about 26 degrees, from its orbital plane. This makes it so, as it moves through its orbit, we, on Earth, get different aspects to how it appears. When wide open, they can appear bigger than the planet. However, because the rings are just 30 or so feet thick, when they appear edge on, they disappear from sight; even in the biggest telescopes. Trying to see the rings is, in fact, the equivalent of trying to see an piece of paper, 0.04 inches thick, edge-on, in Los Angeles from Seattle. Not that it's too possible to try as Saturn is about 30 degrees away from the sun, about the distance Mercury is seen.

However, an edge-on ring system is great news for Cassini, NASA's space probe in orbit around Saturn collecting data. When the sun shines on the ring plane edge-on, details in the rings will be become high-contrast giving the probe an opportunity to take an unprecedented look.


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