Saturn’s rings will disappear in 2025. That’s what we’re being told by multiple articles online in what is fast becoming a viral topic on social media. Is it true? It’s not without a kernel of truth, but this story is about little more than predictable orbital mechanics and line-of-sight views from Earth.
The rings will disappear one day, but not for about 100 million years, according to NASA, when they’ll be pulled into Saturn by its gravity.
Here’s what’s really happening to arguably the solar system’s most beautiful planet and its rings:
Saturn’s Rings Are Closing, Not Disappearing
In 2025, Saturn’s rings will indeed be hard to see from Earth. That’s because we’ll be looking at them side-on. However, they won’t “disappear” but “close.” It’s a phenomenon that happens every 14-15 years, and nothing is unusual about it.
Is this our last chance to see Saturn’s rings? “The short answer is no,” writes Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, in the Conversation. “While it’s true the rings will become almost invisible from Earth in 2025, this is neither a surprise nor reason to panic. The rings will “reappear” soon thereafter.”
Why Saturn’s Rings Seem To ‘Disappear’
Saturn orbits the sun every 29 years—the length of a Saturnian year—and rotates, much like Earth, on a tilted axis. At Saturn, it’s about 27 degrees. As it tilts away from and toward the sun, it experiences seasons, much like Earth.
So our view of the rings waxes and wanes as they open up to about 27 degrees before weakening to a side-on view before opening up again on the other side, and so on. It happens twice in one Saturnian year, so every 29 years, we get a great view of Saturn’s south and north poles, respectively.
In 2017, we got an open view of Saturn’s rings; in 2025, they will be barely visible. By 2032, we’ll again be able to see them at their maximum extent.
Exactly How And When To See Saturn’s Rings
Seeing Saturn’s rings with your eyes for the first time through a small telescope is mind-blowing. You need a telescope to see Saturn’s rings, but nothing special—almost any telescope will do, though about 150mm/6-inch is recommended for a good view.
It does matter when you look, but now is a great time. Saturn was at its annual opposition at the end of August when Earth is between Saturn and the sun. Therefore, the planet looked its biggest, brightest and best of the year. Since that was only a few months ago, you’ll still get a great view, though the planet is now getting noticeably dimmer.
The next best time to look at Saturn in a telescope will be on and around September 8, 2024, when it will next be at opposition.
What We Know About Saturn’s Rings
Saturn has the most extensive ring system of any planet in the solar system. Its seven rings—which stretch about 175,000 miles from the planet’s surface and are about 98% ice—are no older than 400 million years, according to a study published earlier this year.
A paper published in 2022 suggests that they may have formed when the planet’s gravity tore apart one of its moons about 160 million years ago.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.