Saturn's rings are a conglomeration of myriad lumps of ice and dust orbiting in a very tight plane, appearing as discs. There is considerable structure to the rings, caused by the pull of Mimas and the influence of several small shepherd moons that orbit either side of a ring, keeping it in line.

Saturn's rings are the most prominent in the Solar System, although the other gas giants (Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune) have all been found to have rings to some extent.

Astronomers using a large telescope atop Cerro Paranal in Chile recently captured the most detailed view of Saturn ever caught from the ground, with the rings at their most prominent. New research suggests that the most visible set of rings in the Solar System is just a temporary thing. Jeff Cuzzi, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center believes the rings are only a few hundred million years old, making them just 1/20 as old as the actual planet. This suspicion is based on observations showing that the rings lack the dust that would have accumulated if they had formed with the planet 4.8 billion years ago as astronomers originally believed. He notes that the "architecture of the rings is always changing," a sign that the system is actually quite young, and that the spectacle will be short-lived--at least in astronomical terms.

*Discover: June 2002

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