Something just took a chunk out of one of the rings of Saturn
Some passing interstellar sumbitch just vandalized the rings of Saturn.
A team working with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft noticed a dent in the rings, which is technically known as a blob or malformation. A blob in the rings of Saturn isn’t quite as catchy though. No one knows exactly how the dent came to be, so Saturn’s local neighborhood watch is on high alert.
The rings of Saturn were first discovered by Galileo in 1610, although at the time he wasn’t able to identify them as rings. Initially, he thought Saturn was three planets in a linear line, with the center planet being three times the size of the other two. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens became the first to theorize that Saturn was a single planet surrounded by a thin, flat ring.
The rings are made up of ice and dust, with a few (billion) rocks thrown in for good measure. They orbit the gas giant, and may be as old as the planet themselves. They also have their own sparse atmosphere of sorts, comprised of oxygen gas and hydrogen, produced by the disintegration of water molecules.
Historically there has been some controversy over the nature of the rings of Saturn. In the past, it was assumed that Saturn was surrounded by dozens of rings that from a distance – say, 1.2 billion kilometers, Saturn’s distance from Earth – were separated by factors we couldn’t quite identify, possibly things like density of the debris in each ring. Further examination, however, shows that the rings of Saturn are actually just a few massive rings broken up by objects trapped in them, including moons, which create the gaps.
The furthermost visible ring, and the victim of the hit and run, is known as the F ring, and it features a radius of 87,130 miles – give or take. The exact measurement is a little bit off now given the recent development. It isn’t the last of Saturn’s rings, but it might as well be since the others are more or less just material trapped in orbit. They aren’t cool staples of the solar system that encourage endless jokes involving a Beyonce song.
As for the dent, no one is entirely sure what happened. The likely culprit is a comet or passing asteroid, but it might also be a rogue moon or even some strange disturbance within the rings themselves.
The rings will probably reset themselves given time, but for now the solar system neighborhood just got a little more dangerous.