ring, in astronomy, relatively thin band of rocks and dust and ice particles that orbit around a planet in the planet's equatorial plane. All four of the giant planets in the solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune— have rings, although only those of Saturn are easily visible. The origin of the rings is unknown. One theory is that they may have been formed from moons that were shattered by the impact of comets and meteoroids. Another holds that they might be the remnants of moons or comets that came within the planet's Roche limit and were broken up by gravitational forces. In the case of the E ring, it is now known that geyserlike eruptions on Enceladus are a source of the material in the ring.
Saturn has seven rings designated alphabetically as A through G in the order of their discovery. Two additional rings, designated as R/2004 S1 and R/2004 S2 were discovered in images returned to earth from the Cassini space probe in 2004. In 2009 the Spitzer Space Telescope discovered an enormous but faint dust ring that originates in material removed from the moon Phoebe by impacts. From the planet outward, the rings are D, C, B, A, R/2004 S1, R/2004 S2, F, G, E, and the Phoebe ring. With named gaps occupying the space between several of the rings, Saturn's rings are a highly complex structure stretching almost 167,770 mi (270,000 km) from the planet's center to the farthest edge of ring E; the Phoebe ring extends from 3.7 to 7.4 million mi (6 to 12 million km). The rings are not perfectly circular, and the gaps are not completely empty. The Columbo and Maxwell Gaps separate the C and B rings, the Cassini Division and Huygens Gap separate the B and A rings, and the Encke Division and Keeler Gap separate the A and R/2004 S1 rings. Except for the A and B rings, which are separated primarily by the 2,920-mi-wide (4,700-km) Cassini Division, and the Phoebe ring, the rings are relatively close to one another. Most of the rings appear to be composed of small pieces of water ice mixed with a small amount of rocky material in a wide range of particle sizes, from 1 in. (2.5 cm) to 33 ft (10 m)—although there may be an occasional object as large as a mile (1.6 km) in diameter. The Phoebe ring is composed of dust particles about 10 microns in size. Data returned by Cassini indicates that the rings are not uniform; for example, the B ring is very different from the A and C rings (which are similar to one another) found on either side of it. The Phoebe ring is tilted at a 27° angle from the plane of the other rings and, unlike the other rings, orbits Saturn with a retrograde motion. Several of Saturn's small moons appear to be shepherd satellites, maintaining the shape of the rings through gravitational interactions, and there are also ring arcs associated with several moons.
Jupiter's rings are similar to those of Saturn but much smaller and fainter. The main ring is about 4,300 mi (7,000 km) wide and has an abrupt outer boundary 80,000 mi (128,940 km) from the center of the planet. The inner main ring is formed from dust and ice particles kicked up when meteoroids collide with the small Jovian satellites Metus and Adrastea. The particles then spiral slowly in toward Jupiter. At its inner edge the main ring merges into the halo. A broad, faint band of dust and particles, the halo is about 6,200 mi (10,000 km) thick and stretches halfway from the main ring down to the top of Jupiter's atmosphere. A pair of broad, faint gossamer rings are located just outside the main ring, one bounded by the orbit of the Jovian shepherd satellite Amalthea and the other by the orbit Thebe.
Uranus has a thin elliptical band of eleven faint, narrow rings composed of ice, rock, and dust. Stretching outward from the planet, the rings are named 1986 U2R, Six, Five, Four, Alpha, Beta, Eta, Gamma, Delta, 1986 U1R, and Epsilon; the distance from the planetary center to the Epsilon ring is 31,750 mi (51,140 km). The rings are distinctly different from those of Jupiter and Saturn. A tenuous distribution of fine dust is scattered throughout the ring system, and the rings all are the same flat, dark color (perhaps from methane or black-carbon ice coating the rock), unlike Saturn's bright rings. The nine main rings consist of a single layer of particles, the monolayer, which had not previously been seen in planetary rings; the particles are kept from drifting away by several shepherd satellites. Because there are ringlets and incomplete rings and a varying opacity in several rings, it is believed that the Uranian ring system may be the remnants of a small moon.
Neptune has four almost circular faint rings composed of small rocks and dust. The rings are not uniform in density and thickness; the thicker parts of the rings are called ring arcs. Stretching outward from the planet, the rings are named Galle, Leverrier (whose outer extension is called Lassel), Arago, and Adams (which includes the ring arcs Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity); the distance from the planetary center to the Adams ring is 39,000 mi (62,930 km). The forces responsible for the development of ring arcs and ring extensions are not well understood, but shepherd satellites and gravitational forces attributable to Neptune's moons are thought to play a significant role. Earth-based observations indicate that the rings are less stable than was originally believed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.