Features of the Ring and Solar System

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Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun. The distinct ring system of this planet makes it one of the most easily identified planets. It has the largest and most complex ring system in the solar system. The rings around Saturn are made from billions of particles which vary in size. The particles consist of water-ice and rocky materials that are remnants from comets, moons and asteroids. Particles range in size and can be as small as dust particles or as large as a house.

It is not currently known exactly how many rings Saturn has in total. Astronomers are continually making new discoveries. At the moment it is know that Saturn has several major ring systems and some of these have gaps. The rings stay on track and intact because of the smallest moons known as shepherding moons. These moons are satellites which orbit between the rings and the effect of their gravitational pull helps to shape the rings and material into their circular paths. Each ring orbits at a different speed around the planet.

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The rings are named alphabetically according to the order in which they were discovered. The two densest parts of the rings are the A and B rings which are separated by the Cassini Division and then the C ring. After the three main rings there are smaller ‘dusty’ rings; the D, G and E ring as well as the F ring which is outside the A ring. These are fainter than the other rings and more recently discovered.The ring system extends up to 175,000 miles from the planet however the vertical height is around 30 feet in the main rings.

Scientists believe that the rings of Saturn were created from collisions of comets and asteroids with other moons and planets which broke them up into pieces. They believe that the fragments formed by these collisions spread around Saturn and the resulting ring pattern is due to both the massive gravitational pull of the planet itself opposing the orbital velocity of the circulating particles. NASA research indicates that the rings of Saturn are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles under the influence of Saturn’s magnetic field and has estimated that the ring system will have disappeared in 300 million years.

The Oort cloud

The Oort cloud is further away than anything in the known solar system. There are hypotheses about the formation and origins of the cloud, however one of the most popular current theories is that the objects in the Oort cloud combined into one mass close to the sun when planets and minor planets were being formed. After formation gravitational interactions affected the orbits of the objects in the cloud and perturbations from other influences such as passing stars modified these orbits.

The Oort Cloud is believed to be a giant spherical shell surrounding the Sun, planets and Kuiper Belt objects. It is roughly 300 billion kilometres from the sun and approximately 70 times further out than Neptune. It is made of icy, comet-like objects that exhibit a vast range of sizes – some as large as mountains and sometimes larger. Astronomers refer to it as a predicted collection of icy objects. These objects found in the cloud are known as trans-Neptunium objects.

The Oort cloud:

• Is named after the astronomer Jan Oort;

• Is the origin of long period comets (those which take over 200 years to complete an orbit around the sun).

• During formation billions of icy rocks were thrown out in all directions until a ball of debris formed around the whole solar system. These orbit the sun on a sphere with no preferred orientation;

• may have been the cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs caused by a huge cloud comet.

Astronomers believe the cloud of particles are the remains of the disc material which formed the sun and the eight planets of our solar system. The outer limits of the Oort cloud defines the cosmographical boundary of the solar system on the edges of the sun’s gravitational dominance. The Oort cloud has two regions: the spherical outer cloud and a disc shaped inner cloud called the Hills cloud. Conditions in the Oort cloud are not known to support life as we know it.

There have been no missions to explore the cloud, but there are 5 space probes on the way including:

• Voyager 1 and 2

• New Horizons

• Pioneer 10 and 11

The distance however to the Oort cloud is so enormous that the power source in these probes will have been exhausted long before they reach its inner edge. It is anticipated that Voyager 1 will reach the edge f the cloud in about 300 years. 

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