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Does Jupiter have rings? That is an excellent question and one that gets asked often. When we consider which planets have rings, we usually think of Saturn. This is because its impressively broad and bright rings are visible from Earth with the help of a small telescope. Interestingly, Saturn’s neighbor Jupiter also has its own ring system. Yet, as Jupiter’s rings are not as bold and bright, fewer people are aware of this.
Using only a small amateur telescope, we would not be able to see Jupiter’s rings. Still, NASA’s super-powerful James Webb Space Telescope has recently captured some fascinating images of Jupiter using an infrared filter. Some of the pictures included Jupiter’s rings.
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First Sight of Jupiter’s Rings
Jupiter’s rings were discovered in 1979 by the Voyager 1 space probe. As the probe passed by Jupiter, it looked back on the planet in the direction of the Sun. As Jupiter’s rings are very faint, they must be lit up by the Sun to be seen.
The Galileo space probe studied Jupiter’s rings in more detail while orbiting Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. Even though it was sent to study Jupiter and its moons, Galileo provided plenty of information about Jupiter’s rings. With this information, scientists could determine how Jupiter’s rings were formed. They also learned more about what they look like.
How Were Jupiter’s Rings Formed?
Over seven years, the Galileo space probe orbited Jupiter 35 times. It captured more than 14,000 images of Jupiter, its moons, and its rings. Galileo completed a controlled dive through Jupiter’s atmosphere to finish its mission on September 21, 2003.
Images from Galileo allowed scientists to work out exactly how Jupiter’s rings were formed. Made up of small bits of dark dust, the rings formed as meteoroids hit Jupiter’s four small inner moons. Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull increased the speed of these collisions.
These impacts caused fine dust particles to be spread around and captured in orbit around Jupiter. Just imagine the large cloud of chalk dust that explodes when we collide two chalkboard erasers. The dust particles that make up Jupiter’s rings look like dark red soot.
Orbiting dust is drawn back to Jupiter after about 14 days. However, new meteor impacts constantly replace the orbiting dust, so the rings do not disappear.
What Do Jupiter’s Rings Look Like?
Scientists have studied images to develop a detailed picture of Jupiter’s rings. Jupiter has a thin and faint ring system made up of three key parts. These are the halo section, the main ring section, and the Gossamer section.
The halo section is closest to Jupiter. As the thickest and brightest section, it is often described as ‘cloud-like.’ The main ring section is over 4,000 miles wide. It includes the orbits of two of Jupiter’s inner moons, Adrastea and Metis.
The outer Gossamer section consists of two distinct rings, Amalthea and Thebe. These are named after the inner moons from which their dust came. The name ‘Gossamer’ reflects that these rings are see-through.
So, why do Jupiter’s rings appear so different from Saturn’s? As we know, Jupiter’s rings are made of small bits of dark dust that are hard to see. Saturn’s rings are different—they are made up of ice. This means that they reflect more sunlight, and we can easily see their structure. Saturn’s rings also contain large numbers of particles, which makes them much clearer to see.
Do Other Planets Also Have Rings?
The solar system has four giant gas planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Each one has rings. Saturn’s ring system is the most famous because it can be easily seen. The structure of each of the planets’ rings is different, but they do have some similarities. For example, all the ring systems are thin but very wide.
Experts continue to learn more about the rings surrounding some of our Solar System’s planets. As technology advances, more space probes and satellites are being sent into space. These should deliver new and exciting data.
As the amount of space debris continues to rise, other planets may also possess rings in the future. Notably, experts believe that Earth may soon be surrounded by its own rings.
Galileo space probe = An unmanned NASA spacecraft launched on October 18, 1989
Giant gas planet = A massive planet made up of hydrogen and helium
Gravitational pull = Force drawing two objects together
James Webb Space Telescope = An orbiting infrared space telescope, launched by NASA on December 25, 2021
Meteoroid = Small fragments of rock that travel through space
NASA = National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Voyager 1 Space Probe = A space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977
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