UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
Home
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Webcasts
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
Why does Saturn have rings and the other planets do not?
Answer 1:

Thank you for your question. In fact Saturn is not the only planet in our solar system that has rings, in fact all the giant gas planets have them: Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. However, these other ring systems are extremely thin and almost impossible to see. Planets like the Earth, Mars or Venus are made of rocky material and have no rings.

The solar system formed from a cloud of cold gas that collapsed due to gravity. A big glob of stuff formed in the center and eventually became the Sun. Meanwhile, some of the cloud material orbited around the proto-Sun and flattened into a disk. In the disk, some matter came together to form small planetoids that slowly grew. The matter that was closer to the center was also warmer so only the more dense stuff such as metals and rocks combined together to form planets; the warm gas was moving too fast to get caught. Farther away, everything was cooler so gases like hydrogen and helium could also get sucked up by the new planets. So the planets closer to the Sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) are small and rocky while the ones farther away (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) are big gas giants.

Because it was cooler farther away from the Sun it seems that it was easier for the big gas giants to also form moons (in fact there is quite a controversy regarding how the Earth and Mars got their satellites). As it turns out, these moons probably help keep trapped material that the planet has caught in rings instead of flying away or crashing into the planet. In addition, the rings seem to be partly made of frozen gases which don't exist closer to the Sun. So the bottom line is that the farther away gas giants are much more likely to be able to form and keep rings than the inner rocky planets.


Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships