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Why Doesn’t Earth Have Rings?

You’d think Saturn has all the luck, with its awesome rings. But it turns out, living on a planet with rings has consequences, like an impending global apocalypse.

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Team: Fraser Cain – @fcain / frasercain@gmail.com
Karla Thompson – @karlaii
Chad Weber – weber.chad@gmail.com

Before we really get started on today’s episode, I’d like to share a bunch of really cool pictures created by my friend Kevin Gill. Kevin’s a computer programmer, 3-D animator and works on climate science data for NASA.

And in his spare time, he uses his skills to help him imagine what the Universe could look like. For example, he’s mapped out what a future terraformed Mars might look like based on elevation maps, or rendered moons disturbing Saturn’s rings with their gravity.

But one of my favorite sets of images that Kevin did were these. What would it look like if Earth had rings? Kevin and his wife went to a few cool locations, took some landscape pictures, and then Kevin did the calculations for what it would look like if Earth had a set of rings like Saturn.

And let me tell you, Earth would be so much better. At least you’d think so, but actually, it might also suck.

Last time I checked, we don’t have rings like this. In fact, we don’t have any rings at all.

Why not? Considering the fact that Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have rings, don’t we deserve at least something?

Did we ever have rings in the past, or will we in the future? What’s it going to take for us to join the ring club? Short answer, an apocalypse.

Before we get into the inevitable discussion of death and devastation, let’s talk a bit about rings.

Saturn is the big showboat, with its fancy rings. They’re made of water ice, with chunks as big as a mountain, or as small as a piece of sand. Astronomers have been arguing about where they came from and how old they are, but the current consensus – sortof – is that the rings are almost as ancient as Saturn itself: billions of years old. And yet, some process is weathering the rings, grinding the particles so they appear much younger.

Jupiter’s rings are much fainter, and we didn’t even know about them until 1979, when the Voyager spacecraft made their flybys. The rings seem to be created by dust blown off into space by impacts on the planet’s moons.

Hey, we’ve got a moon, that’s a sign.

The rings around Uranus are bigger and more complex than Jupiter’s rings, but not as substantial as Saturn’s. They’re much younger, perhaps only 600 million years old, and appear to have been caused by two moons crashing into each other, long ago.

Again, another sign. We still have the potential for stuff to crash around us.

The rings around Neptune are far dustier than any of the other ring systems, and much younger than the Solar System. And like the rings around Uranus, they were probably formed when two or more of its moons collided together.

Now what about our own prospects for rings?

The problem with icy rings is that the Earth orbits too closely to the Sun. There’s a specific point in the Solar System known as the “frost line” or “snow line”. This is the point in the Solar System where deposits of ice could have survived for long periods of time. Any closer and the radiation from the Sun sublimates the ice away.

This point is actually located about 5 astronomical units away from the Sun, in the asteroid belt. Mars is much closer, so it’s very dry, while Jupiter is beyond the frost line, and its moons have plenty of water ice.

The Earth is a mere 1 AU from the Sun. That’s the very definition of an astronomical unit, which means it’s well within the frost line. The Earth itself can maintain water because the planet’s magnetosphere acts like a shield against the solar wind. But the Moon is bone dry (except for the permanently shadowed craters at its poles).

And if there was an icy ring system around the Earth, the solar wind would have blasted it away long ago.

Instead, let’s look at another kind of ring we can have. One made of rock and dust, containing death and sorrow, from a pulverized asteroid or moon. In fact, billions of years ago, we definitely had a ring when a Mars-sized planet crashed into the Earth and spewed out a massive ring of debris. This debris collected together into the Moon we know today. That impact turned the Earth’s surface inside out. It was all volcanoes, everywhere, all the time.

It’s also possible we had a second moon in the ancient past, which collided with our current Moon. That would have generated an all new ring of material for millions of years until it was recaptured by the Moon, kicked out of orbit, or fell down onto the Earth.

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