What would we see in the sky if Earth had rings like Saturn's?

Saturn, known as the “Gem of the Solar System”, lives up to the nickname. If looking at it with simple telescopes is a breathtaking experience, imagine what it would be like to see the sky of this planet if we could land on its surface! Or, better yet, what would our sky look like if the Earth had rings similar to Saturn’s?

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Something relatively similar must have happened in a very distant past, when the Moon began to form. The most widely accepted hypothesis about the formation of our natural satellite is that a protoplanet called Theia collided with Earth, resulting in a lot of dust and rocky debris in our planet’s orbit. This material stayed there forming a ring, until everything coalesced over time to form our Moon.

(Image: Reproduction/Kevin Gill/Creative Commons)

If this hypothetical ring still existed around our planet, or if for some other reason new rings formed in the orbit of Earth, what would the vision of heaven look like for us? Well, that would depend on a very important factor: the latitude and the direction you were looking.

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Some digital artists have already created images of what they imagine would be our planet’s sky with rings around it, with beautiful results to feed our imagination. Below, you can see some of these images, discover what the view of the sky would be like in different regions of the planet and check out a little bit of the science behind these possibilities.

Earth’s rings would be rocky

On Saturn, the rings are mainly composed of ice, which they remain in a solid state because the planet is so far from the Sun, in a region that is literally freezing. The temperature there is low enough for the ring material to remain stable. As the Earth is much closer to the Sun, our rings, in order to “survive”, would have to be composed of rock or any other material that would not crumble with solar heat.

(Image: Reproduction/Kevin Gill/Creative Commons)

This would not be so difficult, as the collision between the young Earth and the hypothetical planet Theia would have resulted in a ring made of rocky debris. Likewise, any other material that came our way to add to our imaginary Earth ring—such as small asteroids—would most likely be rocky.

Another feature that would make our rings different from those of Saturn is the luminosity. Saturnian rings are brighter because of the reflective properties of ice, so terrestrial rock rings would not have the same lush appearance. An example of this are the rings of Jupiter and Neptune, made of dust and pieces of rock and, therefore, not very luminous.

Shadows and interference

Even if planetary rings are very thin, less than 1 km thick, they would create a great shadow in the most distant regions of the equator, mainly because they would be composed of rocky materials that reflect little sunlight. This shadow would travel slowly from north to south, and then from south to north, as the Earth travels in its orbit around the Sun — just as it does with the seasons themselves.

(Image: Reproduction/Kevin Gill/Creative Commons) It is difficult to estimate how much light we would not receive, but the consequences would be catastrophic if the rings were formed in modern times (dear, if the rings had been there from the beginning, we would have adapted to the scenario). In the northern and southern hemispheres, there would be a drastic drop in temperature during practically the entire winter, hindering agriculture. It would also have an effect on ocean currents and the rain cycle.

Our rings could also disrupt human activities in space. The International Space Station would be safe because it orbits the Earth at a much closer distance — 69 km above sea level. However, the geostationary satellites, which are 36 thousand km above the surface, they could not orbit the Equator.

Night show

Despite reflecting little light, our rings composed of rocky objects could still provide a nice night view in the sky. After all, the Moon is also made of rocky material and “shines” enough for us to enjoy at night — even though much of this shine is a result of the high reflection of the regolith, which covers the lunar surface.

In the case of the rings, they would have a different shape in the sky depending on the latitude of the place where you were. For example, on the equator, they would pass right above our heads. Artist and scientific image processing expert Kevin Gill created magnificent images of what the Earth’s skies would look like if our planet had giant rings.

From the Equator, like Earth’s rings would be aligned with this region, we would see only a straight and completely vertical line, starting from the horizon and crossing the sky to the opposite side. It would be as if the sky were divided in half by a white line. In addition, residents on the equator would suffer far less from the shadow of the rings during the day.

(Image: Reproduction/Kevin Gill/Creative Commons)

The farther you were from the equator, the more the appearance of the rings would change. They would get wider and, in some places, would look very close to the horizon. Residents of Central America, close to Guatemala, would have a very interesting view of the rings in the sky.

By the time of the United States, they would be closer to the horizon line, and we would see much more of its width. In addition, they could have some light during the day, too.

A more curious sight would have those who were somewhere in Polynesia, in the Tropic of Capricorn. The dark, oval break in the middle of the ring, in the image above, is the Earth’s shadow over the disk in its orbit. All night long, it would be possible to see this shadow pass over the ring from one side to the other.

(Image: Reproduction/Kevin Gill/ Creative Commons)

Finally, in the Arctic Circle, the rings almost would not be seen. The glow might be noticeable, but we would only see a small part of them in the sky, very close to the horizon line. In Nome, Alaska, the rings light up the landscape little more than a full moon would. However, the rings would always be visible, day or night, always in exactly the same place.

This article was originally published in /17/2019, being updated and republished in 17/17/2021

Source: Futurism, io9, Universe Today

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