Visualizing the History of Saturn and its Rings

Three images of Saturn's changing rings between 2023, 2024, and 2025, where the rings are most visible in 2023, less visible in 2024, and least visible in 2025.

In March 2025, Saturn’s rings will disappear. Well, this isn’t entirely true. NASA has confirmed that the rings will disappear, yes, but they will only disappear from Earth’s view. Once every 13 to 16 years, Saturn’s plane is angled so that it is perfectly aligned with Earth. This new position makes the thinnest part of Saturn’s rings facing directly towards us, giving the illusion that they’ve disappeared. 

When I was in elementary school, learning the order of the planets, my eyes landed on Saturn and I was instantly drawn. I thought the rings were pretty, even when I found out that they were made of billions of chunks of ice and rocks that were coated in dust. It has the most moons compared to the other planets—as a kid that was powerful to me. I was fascinated with our solar system, mainly because space is such a complex thing to understand. There are so many questions that turn into more questions, so many discoveries, and more to discover, it’s never-ending. 

Like most kids growing up, I didn’t keep up with my fascination whatsoever. Space was still a cool concept to me and Saturn is still my favorite planet. But it was simply put on the back burner while I was worrying about other things—finishing high school and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. Space was still there but it felt like I wasn’t; that was until I found Thai singer and actor Jeff Satur in 2020. He made my love for Saturn come back ten times stronger since the planet is woven into pretty much everything of his—things like his company Studio On Saturn and his Saturn-inspired logo (in his stylistic form). It felt like Saturn was my planet. 

So, I guess you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that Saturn’s rings would disappear. This is what led me down a rabbit hole to understanding Saturn’s complex history. Join me for the discoveries of Saturn and its best companion, its rings, in preparation for their “disappearance.”

A series of images of Saturn taken through the years, labeled 1610, 1675, 1895 and 2023. The images on pasted on a space background with the title "Saturn Through the Years" and a small rocket ship clip art.
Graphic made by the author. Images source: solarviews.com, earthmagazine.org, and lifestyleasia.com.

Major discoveries

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first to observe Saturn. What he could make out with his faulty telescope were three objects in a row. The bigger object in the middle was Saturn and the other two were what he assumed to be moons, one on each side; otherwise known at the time as the “triple planet.” He documented his findings, drawing exactly what he thought Saturn looked like. To me, his drawing looked like a little animated animal; if you put two dots in the middle of the center object, you’ll get a cute bear with big ears. 

Two years later, he realized the “moons” were gone. According to NASA, it was because Galileo was viewing it edge-on so the “moons” were invisible. Edge-on means you’re seeing something from the side, which is why Galileo thought the “moons” were gone; due to how thin Saturn’s rings are, he thought they disappeared. Two years after that, the “moons” reappeared but this time he concluded the strange objects to be more like “arms” which is how Saturn was viewed for 43 years.

Images of Saturn, taken from 1610 and 1616.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to improved telescope optics, in 1659, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was the one to correctly deduce that the “arms” were actually a ring system. He was also able to discover one of Saturn’s major moons, Titan. Years later, Italian-French astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini discovered four more major moons: Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys, and Dione. Which were actually considered planets in the mid-17th century, a status that was removed in the 18th century. In 1675, Cassini discovered a narrow gap splitting Saturn’s ring system in two—Ring A and Ring B——which we now know as the “Cassini Division.” 

A graphical illustration of Saturn and its ring system, along with annotations for its various moons and significant divisions within the rings. Saturn is shown on the left with its rings extending to the right. Each ring is labeled, such as the D, C, B, and A rings, with specific gaps like the Cassini and Encke Divisions pointed out. Notable moons such as Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Phoebe are labeled and aligned horizontally across the image, with arrows indicating their relative positions. Additional annotations indicate the Cassini spacecraft's Saturn orbit insertion and ring plane crossing paths. The overall color palette is muted with dark space in the background, highlighting the labeled elements with white and yellow text for visibility.
Image source: Wikimedia

There were no further discoveries until the late 19th century when J.E. Keeler used his refracting telescope to take pictures of Saturn in 1895. He discovered a gap in the outer part of Ring A. This would then lead him to discover that its rings are not solid disks but rather a collection of particles that revolve around the planet. For two centuries, astronomers have had the question of what exactly revolved around Saturn. With these pictures, scientists today agree with J.E. Keeler’s discovery. 

A picture of Saturn and its rings taken in 1895.
Image source: Science Direct

Since 1979, there have been four spacecraft visits but no stops on Saturn, discovering more moons—now totaling 146—and discovering new rings. Pioneer 11 was the first to study Saturn up close. Voyager 1, the first of the twin Voyagers, flew by Saturn in 1980. Voyager 2 flew even closer in 1981, bringing back spectacular photos and data of the thinness of the rings. Lastly, we have the Cassini that launched in 2004, being the first to orbit Saturn, spending 13 years gathering information. 

Four images of Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and Cassini.
Graphic made by the author. Image source: NASA.

Saturn’s rings

Scientists have discovered that all the major planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—have ring systems; however, Saturn’s are the largest and only one that isn’t difficult to see. The main rings, A, B, and C, are the rings that are most visible to Earth, and the closest ring, D, is very faint. Depending on where Earth and Saturn are in their orbit around the Sun, we see Saturn and its rings at different angles; this is why Saturn’s rings seem to “disappear.” Their rings are already so thin, so we see them edge-on. 

The reason behind their thinness has to do with the ring particles colliding with each other. There are high and low-energy ring particles. High-energy particles are high above or below the rings, making them in a highly inclined orbit, whereas particles closer to the ring plane are lower in energy. When ring particles collide, some of their energy will be lost, drifting closer to the ring plane. Over time, these particles will flatten into a thin plane, and this is what we see today.

A table titled "Measurements of Saturn's Rings" where D Ring has a radius of 67,000 km and is 7,500 km in width, C Ring has a radius of 74,490 km and is 17,500 km in width, B Ring has a radius of 91,980 km and is 25,500 km in width, A Ring has a radius of 122,050 km and is 14,600 km in width, F Ring has a radius of 140,224 km and is 14,600 km in width, G Ring has a radius of 166,000 km and is 8,000 km in width, E Ring has a radius of 180,000 km and is 300,000 km in width.
Graphic made by the author. Image source: Britannica.

Saturn’s rings vanishing

I was happy to find that Saturn’s rings won’t be disappearing in 2025 and I will be waiting for the new images that will be taken of Saturn when its rings are “gone.”

Three images of Saturn's changing rings between 2023, 2024, and 2025, where the rings are most visible in 2023, less visible in 2024, and least visible in 2025.
Image source: Newsweek.

However, this illusion will turn into reality. Scientists have concluded that Saturn’s rings aren’t expected to last forever. They’ve predicted that the rings will last a couple hundred million years until they vanish the way Jupiter’s, Uranus’, and Neptune’s already have. However, the Cassini spacecraft measured ring material that was detected falling into Saturn’s equator, which means the timeline in which the rings will vanish has lessened the years down to 100 million. Thankfully, we’re lucky to be able to witness Saturn’s rings in our lifetime. 

Samantha Nicklaus is a current student at the Savannah College of Art and Design working towards her degree in writing. She enjoys writing nonfiction but prefers reading fiction in her free time. When her focus isn’t on writing, she’s sharing her world through social media.