Reference Work Entry

Planets, Stars and Stellar Systems

pp 309-375

Planetary Rings

  • Matthew S. TiscarenoAffiliated withCenter for Radiophysics and Space Research, Cornell University

Abstract

Planetary rings are the only nearby astrophysical disks and the only disks that have been investigated by spacecraft (especially the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn). Although there are significant differences between rings and other disks, chiefly the large planet/ring mass ratio that greatly enhances the flatness of rings (aspect ratios as small as 10− 7), understanding of disks in general can be enhanced by understanding the dynamical processes observed at close range and in real time in planetary rings.We review the known ring systems of the four giant planets, as well as the prospects for ring systems yet to be discovered. We then review planetary rings by type. The A, B, and C rings of Saturn, plus the Cassini Division, comprise our solar system’s only dense broad disk and host many phenomena of general application to disks including spiral waves, gap formation, self-gravity wakes, viscous overstability and normal modes, impact clouds, and orbital evolution of embedded moons. Dense narrow rings are found both at Uranus (where they comprise the main rings entirely) and at Saturn (where they are embedded in the broad disk) and are the primary natural laboratory for understanding shepherding and self-stability. Narrow dusty rings, likely generated by embedded source bodies, are surprisingly found to sport azimuthally confined arcs at Neptune, Saturn, and Jupiter. Finally, every known ring system includes a substantial component of diffuse dusty rings.Planetary rings have shown themselves to be useful as detectors of planetary processes around them, including the planetary magnetic field and interplanetary impactors as well as the gravity of nearby perturbing moons. Experimental rings science has made great progress in recent decades, especially numerical simulations of self-gravity wakes and other processes but also laboratory investigations of coefficient of restitution and spectroscopic ground truth. The age of self-sustained ring systems is a matter of debate; formation scenarios are most plausible in the context of the early solar system, while signs of youthfulness indicate at least that rings have never been static phenomena.