Have you ever looked at the night sky through a telescope? Many who have can tell you that they still remember the first time they found themselves looking at the planet Saturn. It is almost a startling sight. Against a backdrop of endless black dusted with countless glittering stars, there hangs a luminous orb wreathed with flat, elegant rings!
What are these rings? Back in 1610, when the astronomer Galileo first looked at Saturn through his handmade telescope, the view was so fuzzy that Saturn looked like a planet with ears—a central orb flanked by two smaller ones. As telescopes improved over the years, astronomers saw the rings more clearly, but they still argued over the composition of the rings. Many asserted that the rings were rigid, solid disks. Not until 1895 did astronomers have convincing proof that the rings were composed of many particles of rock and ice.
The book The Far Planets notes: “Saturn’s rings, a set of ribbons fashioned from uncountable icy fragments, rank among the chief wonders of the Solar System. The gleaming halo is enormous, extending 250,000 miles [400,000 km] from an inner edge just above the planet’s atmosphere to an outer rim almost too wispy to discern. It is also astonishingly thin, less than a hundred feet [30 m] on average.” In June 2004, when the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft reached Saturn and sent back data and pictures, scientists began learning even more about the complexity of these hundreds of rings.
An article in Smithsonian magazine recently stated: “Saturn looks almost designed—an object as perfect as mathematics.” We can sympathize with the writer’s sentiments, but we can only wonder about the inclusion of the word “almost.” In truth, this lovely celestial body is but one of countless others that fit the inspired description penned thousands of years ago: “The heavens are declaring the glory of God; and of the work of his hands the expanse is telling.”—Psalm 19:1.
[Picture Credit Lines on page 31]
Background: NASA, ESA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona); insets: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)