If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

Our planet is lucky enough to have a large moon orbiting not too far away, which makes for very pretty moonlit nights. But for spectacular skies it might almost be worth trading in our moon for a ring like Saturn's.

In fact, the earth did once have a ring—as part of the formation of our moon, ironically enough. When the planet Thea crashed into the earth, a titanic amount of material was blown into space. This went into orbit around the earth, forming a ring until it all eventually coalesced into our present-day satellite. This only happened because the material was orbiting outside of earth's Roche limit.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

In 1848, the French mathematician Edouard Roche calculated that if a large satellite were to approach too closely to a planet, it would be torn apart by the planet's gravitational forces. This happens because the gravitational attraction of a planet on a moon is not equal. The planet pulls more on the side of the moon closest to it and less on the side further away. If the moon gets too close, this unequal pull can become great enough to tear the moon apart. Every planet has what is called a Roche limit. Saturn's rings lay entirely within its Roche limit.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

Some astronomers believe that Saturn's rings are material that was unable to form into a moon because it lies within the planet's Roche limit. The gravitational pull of Saturn prevents particles from clumping together to form a moon. Another idea popular among scientists suggests that during the time when Saturn was first forming, it had one or more moons just outside its Roche limit. The bigger a planet is, the more gravity it has. And the more gravity it has, the bigger its Roche limit is. So as Saturn grew larger, its Roche limit grew, too. The limit soon moved past the inner moons. These moons soon broke apart. The remnants of the destroyed moons eventually formed the magnificent rings we see today. There may still be large pieces of these ancient moons within the rings. They would be much smaller than their ancestors but a thousand times larger than a typical ring particle. Another theory suggests that a few hundred million years ago—at a time when the early ancestors of the dinosaurs were roaming Earth—Saturn may have had no rings at all. The rings formed when one or more small moons wandered too close to Saturn. When they got within the Roche limit, Saturn's gravity ripped them apart. After millions of years of bumping against one another, the pieces of moon were ground into the tiny particles that form the rings today.

Any one of these scenarios could have produced a ring around the earth. It hardly matters, since wondering what our planet would look like with a ring is really just an exercise in imagination.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

If we had rings in the same proportion to our planet that Saturn's are to it, it is pretty easy to figure out what they would like like from different places on the earth. From the equator the rings would be passing directly overhead. Since you'd be looking in the same plane as the rings, all you would see is a bright line arching from horizon to horizon. Here is what the rings might look like from Quito, Ecuador:

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

If we travel just a little further north to Guatemala, the rings begin to spread across the sky. The earthlight illuminating the dark side of the moon is many times brighter than we are accustomed to, due to the increased sunlight being reflected from the rings.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

Moving to somewhere in Polynesia on the Tropic of Capricorn—at 23° south latitude a 180° panorama gives an idea of what a magnificent sight the rings would be. The dark, oval-shaped break in the middle of the ring is the earth's shadow. During the course of every night you would be able watch it sweep across the ring like the hand of a God's own wristwatch. Here it is midnight, with the shadow at its fullest extent. The edge of the shadow is tinged an orangish-pink as sunlight passes through the earth's atmosphere.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

From Washington, DC (at 38° latitude), the rings begin to sink below the horizon, though they would still be an awe-inspiring sight as they dominate the sky both day and night.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

At the Arctic Circle, the rings barely reach above the horizon. Seen here from Nome, Alaska, the brilliant rings illuminate the barren landscape scarcely more than a full moon would. Unlike the sun or moon, however, the rings neither rise nor set...they are always visible, day or night, always in exactly the same place.

If Earth Had a Ring Like Saturn

Illustrations by Ron Miller