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What If Earth Had Rings Like Saturn?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Mark Sammut
The rings of Saturn are one of the Solar System's most iconic features. Steady streams of space dust circling the gas giant planet, Saturn's rings have intrigued scientists, astronomers and philosophers for centuries. But, what would happen if Earth had rings?

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What If Earth Had Rings Like Saturn?

We’ve always been fascinated by the other planets in the solar system. But, one in particular tends to stand out.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What If Earth Had Rings Like Saturn?

Even without its rings, Saturn is interesting enough. A gigantic ball of hydrogen, helium, ammonia, and methane, it was known to ancient civilizations. But, the rings are truly what sets it apart. They were first observed through a telescope by Galileo in the early 1600s, although he incorrectly assumed they amounted to two single moons at the time. Fast-forward 400 years and, though there are plenty more mysteries yet to solve, we know a great deal more about Saturn’s defining feature.

There are at least eight major rings in total, mostly made up of floating ice, dust and rocks of various size. It’s thought that they originally formed when ancient asteroids shattered as they crossed Saturn’s Roche limit. The remnants were then pulled into place by Saturn’s gravity, leaving the rings we know today. So, is there any possibility of Earth copying the iconic look? Well, perhaps it already has.

According to the Giant-Impact Hypothesis, Earth may have had its own ring around 4.5 billion years ago. A theory actually on how our moon came to be, it suggests that Earth collided with a smaller, now-non-existent planet called Theia. At first, Theia fragmented into a Saturn-like ring of matter, before eventually coalescing to create the Moon. So, if it has happened before, it could happen again.

It’s thought the rings of Saturn themselves are at most only 100 million years old, a small fraction of the planet’s entire lifetime. Here, it’d take just one moderately-sized asteroid to cross Earth’s Roche limit (that’s around 11,000 miles away from us), and we could have a cosmic band all of our own. True, most of that moderately-sized asteroid would likely hit us before that happens (which could feasibly wipe out life as we know it), but that’s another story.

Say Earth just already had rings, and that all of human history had simply happened beneath them. In many ways, life would be the same as it is right now. But, there would be some obvious differences.

A blue sky and clouds feel like fairly fundamental parts of life on this planet, but whenever we looked up we’d now see the remnants of an ancient asteroid, too. Astronomers would have to bypass the debris to view the rest of the universe; Meteorologists would spend a lot of their time monitoring the rings and predicting their movement; The passing rock and ice could disrupt weather systems, causing even greater uncertainty than we currently have; And, the backdrop of paintings, portraits, photographs and selfies would all now include a steady stream of space dust.

Perhaps the biggest difference would be at night, when the rings would likely reflect back much more light onto Earth than our moon - because of their closer proximity. Elsewhere, it’s not thought that our hypothetical rings would affect the tides all that much (the moon is still the chief instigator, there), but they could trigger significant change in our atmosphere.

NASA’s Cassini probe (which spent 13 years orbiting Saturn between 2004 and 2017) found that Saturn’s ionosphere – a layer of the atmosphere packed with electrically charged particles – is much colder and denser in the areas under the rings’ shadow. Should the same situation play out on Earth, not only would it create noticeable ‘cold spots’, but it’d also disrupt radio signals all over the world.

Nothing lasts forever, though. And even Saturn’s rings are disappearing. In fact, they’re said to be eroding right now at a pretty alarming rate, and could well be completely gone within the next 100 million years. For the most part, they’re plummeting inwards, pulled in by Saturn’s gravity to create a constant rain of rock and dust. According to Cassini’s readings, the downpour hits at approximately 22,000 pounds per second. If Earth had rings, the same would eventually happen here - with the frequency of wayward rocks increasing as the rings grow older.

Up to a point, the Earth having rings would be fairly manageable, so long as the air remains breathable and the majority of sunlight still passes through. When the rings inevitably deteriorate, though, Earth's gravity would constantly pull dangerous debris down towards the surface - leaving anyone alive to see it to warily watch the skies 24 hours a day. And, that’s what would happen if Earth had rings like Saturn.

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