Raining Rings

Perched on the edge of perception –

Six concentric rings of water, ice,

And dust rotate.

To the untrained eye you appear

Frozen in time.

An ancient halo of steadfast

Proportions.

 

But in between the sheets of rock

And air your certainty is

Wavering.

There’s a push and a pull.

And like a thread of

Gossamer

Floating on a rippled lake,

You find yourself entangled

On the knotted rope of this cosmic

Tug of War;

Finley balanced on a razor’s edge

Between the fiery embrace of home

And the chilly valediction of

Empty space.

 

And so, you fight against the push,

You rage against the pull;

Carelessly crashing into the

Pockmarked corpses of your siblings

In a vain attempt to stem the tide.

Until suddenly –

A flash of light

Causes the hackles on your stony flesh

To rise

And you find yourself unwillingly drawn

Into that milky, marbled orb.

A fatal, and unrequited attraction

As you fall like rain

Onto a planet that welcomes you

With open graves.

The planet Saturn, viewed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its 2009 equinox (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute).

This science poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that Saturn is losing its iconic rings, as they are pulled into the planet by gravity.

Saturn is the sixth planet from our Sun and the most distant that can be seen from Earth by the naked eye. It is perhaps best known for its beautiful ring system, first observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610. This ring system is comprised of six main rings, each itself made up of thousands of tiny ringlets, with the largest of these rings measuring over 270,000 km, with a thickness of only 200 m! They are made up of floating chunks of ice, rocks, and dust, which collide constantly with one another.

These ring particles are caught in a balancing act between the pull of Saturn’s gravity (which wants to pull them into the planet) and their orbital velocity (which wants to hurl them into outer space). Tiny ring particles can also become electrically charged by UV light from the Sun, and when this happens, they also feel the pull of Saturn’s magnetic field, which curves inward toward the planet. This can cause the balance of forces on these tiny particles to change dramatically, causing the particles to be pulled into Saturn’s atmosphere as ‘ring rain’. This new research has estimated that Saturn’s rings will likely not exist in 100 million years’ time, whilst also indicating that they are unlikely to have been formed more than 100 million years ago. Given Saturn’s age of over 4 billion years old we are thus incredibly lucky to be living in a time where they can be observed. However, this temporary nature of planetary rings also means that we may just have missed out on seeing spectacular ring formations on other planets such as Jupiter and Neptune.

You can listen to an audio version of this poem here:

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