Saturn sans rings

Rare phenomenon

 
Explaining the phenomenon, which occurs after every 14.7 years, R C Kapoor, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, said: “Saturn is going through a phase called ‘Ring Crossing’. In this condition, its rings become aligned along our line of sight and are therefore very difficult to see.”

The Saturn’s rings keep tilting in different directions as viewed from the earth, due to changing geometry, as it moves around the sun. At times, when the geometry is very favourable, the rings appear face on, spread out and clearly visible. This had happened in 2000, he said.

“In the present situation, the rings of the planet are tilted edge-on to the earth, making them impossible to see,” C B Devgun, President of Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE), said.

Since the ring system is extremely thin, the entire system becomes invisible during this phase (ring crossing) of around 15 days. The complete edge-on phenomenon was visible on September 4, he said. Since then, the view of Saturn’s rings has been slowly tilting towards us in such a way that they are now visible almost edge-on,
Something like this was first noticed around 400 years ago when Italian astronomer Galileo first turned his telescope towards Saturn, Devgun said. One can see the Saturn with the help of a telescope of about five cm aperture or more and a magnification upward of 100 for a good view. Of the four planets with rings — Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune — in the solar system, Saturn has the most prominent ring system.  While the planet revolves, its axis of rotation and the plane of the rings are tilted 26.7 degrees to the plane of its orbit.

The angle and direction of tilt are fixed in space. Thus, as Saturn moves in its orbit, one can alternately see the north and south sides of the rings for almost 15 years each.

In between, the rings appear edge-on to the line of sight and seem to disappear. For the past 15 years, south side of the rings were visible. On September 4, the rings were positioned edge-on which made the planet appear without any ring.

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