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June 7, 2001 09:00 AM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2001-15

A Change of Seasons on Saturn

A Hubble Heritage Release

June 7, 2001: Looming like a giant flying saucer in our outer solar system, Saturn puts on a show as the planet and its magnificent ring system nod majestically over the course of its 29-year journey around the Sun. These Hubble telescope images, captured from 1996 to 2000, show Saturn's rings open up from just past edge-on to nearly fully open as it moves around the Sun.

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Q & A: Understanding the Discovery

  1. 1. Why are Saturn's rings at a different angle in each image?

  2. Saturn is tilted on its axis, just like Earth. Our view of the tilted planet and its rings changes as Saturn makes its 29-year journey around the Sun. For comparison, the Earth completes a circuit around the Sun in one year. Because Saturn is tilted like Earth, it, too, has seasons.

  3. 2. How thick are Saturn's rings?

  4. Saturn's rings are incredibly thin, with a thickness of only about 30 feet (10 meters). The rings are made of dusty water ice, in the form of boulder-sized and smaller chunks that gently collide with each other as they orbit around Saturn. Saturn's gravitational field constantly disrupts these ice chunks, keeping them spread out and preventing them from combining to form a moon. The rings, as shown here, have a slight pale reddish color due to the presence of organic material mixed with the water ice.

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Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Acknowledgment: R.G. French (Wellesley College), J. Cuzzi (NASA/Ames), L. Dones (SwRI), and J. Lissauer (NASA/Ames)