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#BAFact: To scale, Saturn's rings are flatter than a sheet of paper.

Saturn's magnificent rings are composed of countless tiny particles of water ice, each orbiting the gas giant planet. The rings are huge: nearly 300,000 km (180,000 miles) across! But they're also amazingly flat. Observations indicate they are only 10 meters thick in some places, up to a kilometer in others. 

Using the 1 kilometer number, that makes the width-to-thickness ratio of Saturn's rings 1 in 300,000, or 0.0000033.

Now look at a standard piece of US writing paper. It's 8.5 x 11 inches (22 x 28 cm) in width/height, and only 0.004 inches (about 0.1 mm) thick. That gives it a width-to-thickness ratio of roughly 0.00036.

That means that, to scale, a sheet of paper is 100 times thicker than Saturn's rings! Incredible, that something so sprawlingly vast can also be so delicately thin.

_[Saturn image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute 
http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2012/12/20/saturn_s_night_side_cassini_sees_rings_and_planet_in_stunning_picture_photo.html ]_
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Chris Greene's profile photoPhil Stracchino's profile photoDaniel Taylor's profile photoPhilip Plait's profile photo
33 comments
 
What a cool #BAFact  !  

If one were to "run into" the ring (which is spinning, I assume) with their spacecraft, would there be damage like a saw blade cutting the ship in two?

Probably not, but fun to imagine, eh?
 
Since all those little bits of ice are traveling at orbital velocities, there would be significant damage to any spacecraft that tried to punch through the rings. Enough to at least destroy its functionality, I'd assume.
 
Didn't one or more of the space probes that went to Saturn fly through the rings? I think there's a lot more empty there than it looks like.
 
Well, it depends on two things ....  how fast you were going relative to the ring material, and whether you actually intersected any of the objects/particles making up the ring.  My understanding is that the average density of the rings is low enough that a small vehicle would have pretty good odds of just passing directly through the ring without hitting anything.
 
They were going to but then decided against it, due to the fact that even the empty parts have stuff in them.
 
+Daniel Taylor I think you're right that a probe went through the rings.  Also, the empty space part of Space always slips my mind.  So, you're probably double right and the relative emptiness means it wouldn't be dangerous unless the ship was somehow at rest w.r.t. the rings' orbital velocity
 
;) Ok. I suppose that was technically "through" the rings, although it was really more "between" the F and G rings, which are separated by 25,000 km – almost twice the diameter of Earth. (Yet even there there was stuff.) Trying to pass through a true main ring gap would probably still be a bad idea.
 
Ed, that wasn't through the main rings at all, though.  The crossings were 19 Mm outside the F ring, so almost out in the G ring.  We've been through the E and G ring a bunch of times, now, but it's a fairly different discussion since the particle sizes are orders of magnitude different.
 
Yeah, I read that one of the "end of life" scenarios is to plunge it through the "thick" rings a few times until the probe dies, doing science all the way until the end.
 
Yeah, we tossed that idea around, but I don't think it ever really was likely to get far.  It would have left that plutonium RTG still in the rings, which I think freaks some people out.  Plunging into the planet is much more permanent destruction.
 
That's funny. Don't want to leave it IN OUTER SPACE - but have no problem plunging it into a planet, where it will be scattered through the atmosphere.

Also, I must say it is awesome that through Phil's G+, I can have a conversation with one of the people directly involved with the unmanned missions... (Normally I only get that with the manned side, knowing people working on that side.)
 
I'm not 100% certain that there would have been objections, but I was told during the end-of-life discussions on Galileo the idea of getting the spacecraft out of Jupiter orbit into a heliocentric one was floated and policy-makers said, "No."  Apparently, there was worry about the tiny chance of the orbit evolving and eventually bring it back to Earth.  So death-plunge into Jupiter it was.
If it makes you feel better, we should get some amazing science out of the orbits inside the D ring.  In the end, the return on that scenario was better than smashing the rings, anyway.

Someday, however, I would like to see a rings mission to actually examine some of those particles.  We can build all the models we want, but eventually, I want to see how close we are.  If only our of curiosity. :)
 
Join me to the Dark Side and together we'll ride Saturn.
 
I think there was actually a proposal to thread Pioneer 11 through the Cassini Division (which would probably have destroyed it; there's a lot more there than anyone realized).

As it was, it nearly collided with Epimetheus, and discovered it in the process, which I suppose involved going through the diffuse Janus/Epimetheus Ring between the F and G Rings.
 
I thought they sunk Galileo to avoid the chance of impacting Europa...
 
Well...  "All these worlds are yours" and all...
 
I like the photo and the knowledge of the people who leave comments here. i have one question- there is an asteroid that will come between the earth and the moon. Do you know when it will be viewable and would I be able to see it with a reasonable telescope with a lens that can see the moon ?
Tara Li
 
+John Weiss - I would like, down the road, to see people go there and bury up inside the rings as habitat, using fusion reactors to melt together ring particles, and even to burrow into some of the larger moonlets.
 
Bear in mind that the largest particles aren't more than a few meters in size, so you'd need a lot of them to make a habitat.  What's the goal of living there? (I mean, apart from rings being cool. :)


Jason: that was part of it, yes.  If they'd left Galileo in orbit, it might have hit Europa. The RTG could melt through the ice and contaminate the ocean.  (I'm not sure if the plutonium was a worry, but Galileo wasn't cleaned to lander specifications, so any contact with the moon would have been bad for later missions looking for life.)  But it didn't have to go in to avoid Europa; ejecting it from a Jupiter orbit would have done the same thing, for that purpose.  And it would have made it possible for our descendants to retrieve it for a museum.  There's a nice feeling about knowing a hard-working robotic emissary may one day come home and get the attention it deserves.
Tara Li
 
Isn't "Rings Being Cool" sufficient?
 
For dreaming, absolutely.  Sadly, when it comes time to actually allocate money, apparently not.
Tara Li
 
Money allocators are DUMB.
 
" the rings are thinner than a sheet of paper! " OK I love
science and love what you write about, but please, this description is borderline untruth, only somewhat true on how one understands the various ways could be understood. yeah, makes great link-bait, look I'm responding here, but is that really what you want to happen?
 
In what way is it untrue?  He said, "to scale", after all.
 
in the link to this site from Slate, the blue highlight only indicated
"the rings are thinner than a sheet of paper!" which gives a different impression. one so amazing I clicked on it. then to discover on further reading that is to scale.
 
I don't see what you're apparently seeing, but are you sure it's Phil's fault (rather than someone at Slate or another site trying to shorten the link text)?
 
+Matthew Seigel I wrote in the article that "to scale, the rings are thinner than a sheet of paper". I linked the last part of that sentence because to my eye it makes the sentence easier to read in a design sense. But the sentence is true, there for all to see, and clear. 
 
+Matthew Seigel I don't see what the problem is. Regardless of the headline, Saturn is always amazing and always worth a click. I'm quite sure your time wasn't wasted.
 
+Jason Major true, I agree with you. and really, this is perhaps last person i should complain about. I guess I get tired of when reading fast on web as is often needed, ( or worse, even when read carefully) I get fooled by a headline. and in a way, I guess was holding science writer to higher standard. but really, I certainly want science to get more attention than what Miley Kardashian Middleton baby bump divorce gets. and certainly if we are ever to even remotely save elephants, icebergs and NASA budget, they need to find way to rise above the noise and make people give a shit. so, OK, fine, I apologize. it did get my attention. and my time not wasted.
 
If all headlines were written like those on research papers, only scientists would read them. Which is fine for scientists (but bad for science.)
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