Saturn’s Rings

In Ocboer of 2002, the Cassini spacecraft took its first picture of the planet Saturn. The picture shows Saturn’s trademark — its glorious rings.

Philip Nicholson: A lot of us … who work on the rings became fascinated by them partly because they’re just so beautiful and so elegant. And that hasn’t gone away.

That’s Phillip Nicholson, on the Cassini science team. He’s eagerly awaiting the spacecraft’s arrival at Saturn in July of 2004. He hopes Cassini will help explain how and when Saturn’s rings were formed — why there are gaps between the rings — and why Saturn has rings.

Cassini will take thousands of pictures and will use radio waves to study the icy particles composing the rings, which range in size from dust grains to boulders.

Philip Nicholson: It’s too dangerous to actually fly the spacecraft through the main rings because the probabilities are that we would kill it the first time we did that. So nobody wants to do that. Nevertheless, there are faint, outer extensions of the rings that extend out well beyond the obvious rings that you see in a photograph, and the spacecraft will fly through these much more tenuous outer rings …

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