Saturn, Lord of the Rings

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2008 10:42 pm

To the unaided eye, Saturn doesn’t look like much. It appears to be just another "star" — brighter than most, but still just starlike. In fact, you can see for yourself: over the next few days, go outside right after sunset and look west. You’ll see two of these "stars" very close together. One is Mars, the other Saturn. It’s hard to tell which is which: from a few hundred million kilometers away, Saturn’s signature rings are invisible with just your eye.

That’s too bad. Saturn’s ring system is magnificent, and amazing. But if we can’t go to Saturn to see the rings, the least I can do is bring the rings here to you.

And so I present the fourth in the series of short astronomy videos I’ve been making with director Tom Lucas. Saturn, Lord of the Rings is now up in high-definition goodness on (if you’re in the US), and we’ve also simulposted it on YouTube. I’ve even embedded it here, like Pandora and Prometheus in the F Ring:

This one was fun to make. We filmed it at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science — which is also the place that managed the making of the black hole planetarium show, which Tom produced and directed and on which I served as Science Consultant. So it was nifty to go back and see the place again. They have an incredible planetarium, and that image of Saturn you see behind me in the video was actually being projected in real time on the dome as we shot it. It was a fully controllable 3D rendering, so we could spin it, zoom in, revolve around it, everything. Very cool stuff. If you’re in the area, treat yourself to the DMNS. They do good work… and Splendid Elles is there too for a bonus!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Video Blog

Comments (41)

  1. Richard Saunders

    Phil.. you should be on TV, not me. I just love this. I mean you are the best.

  2. annette

    That was just !!

  3. madge

    I love these short films you do. This one was great. Saturn has always been my favourite. It was the first thing I saw through a telescope way back when and it blew my mind and I was hooked. The rings give a real sense of a 3D object in space you just don’t get with other planets. Then when I studied astronomy I had to give a presentation on the ringed planet. It wasn’t nearly as good as yours by a long shot but I loved giving it. Then Cassini arrived and I have been following it’s progress and marvelling at those amazing i-madge-s ever since. Saturn Rules! :)

  4. Very nice.
    Hulu still makes me so angry, though.
    Why must the internet be different for us outside the U.S.?

  5. Chip

    That was really cool and informative. That little film could (should) easily be on any PBS station or the Science Channel as a vignette between programs – and of course at planetariums.

    I hope you do one about Titan.

  6. AJWM

    The DMNS planetarium (technically the Gates Planetarium, named for the rubber company exec, not Bill) is nice, but I miss the old one, with the circular rows of seats and the planetarium machine in the pit at the center. Sentimental reasons mostly, I guess — my wife and I got married there; we designed a show into the ceremony, the operator threw in laser fireworks as a gift.

    The Saturn video is cool.

  7. themadlolscientist

    One set of rings to rule them all…………. I wish the earth had rings too. Talk about c00000000000l!!!11!

  8. Evilbob

    It’s a pity that you’ve posted it on a UnitedStatesCentric website. Why should most of the world have to make do with the lousy youtube quality version? I’m disappointed, Phil.

  9. I remember doing public nights at McCormick and turning the telescope onto Saturn. People refused to believe it was real. They thought we’d put a sticker on the end of the ‘scope.

    You should do more TV. I was just watching the Penn and Teller episode you were on. You’ve got talent, my friend.

  10. Hi Phil, very nice film indeed!

    Just one thing though: Galileo did not “discover Saturn’s rings”, he notices something was funny with Saturn. It was Huygens who identified the “lobes” correctly as a ring system. Anyway, this is a minor quibble. Please do more of these!

  11. Great stuff. It makes me think of Carl Sagan and Cosmos, and Nova and PBS which was SO influential to me as a kid. I can’t thank you enough for providing this kind of thing for my kids to watch! As someone else implied, you definitely have a talent for presentation and explanation, and you are highly entertaining to watch as well. It’s very apparent you are passionate about what you present. The world needs a LOT more folks like you.

    As an aside, I read your last book and it was great! To be honest I found it kind of amazing that some people really believe in some of the stuff you felt necessary to debunk. I guess maybe I’m more sheltered than I thought! I’ve pre-ordered your next one and can’t wait! I hear its scary… 😉

  12. OMFSM! That was awesome. I learned stuff, too. 😀

  13. Kaptain K



    Way too short!!! :(

  14. Hakobus

    Any chance of us Europeans getting to see the HD version? Through Vuze perhaps?

  15. Rhanor

    Being a long fan of BA, it’s sad to find out that I (and lots of other non US’ers) will not be able to watch the HD ones. The problem is, I live in a country that even restricts (or tries to restrict) me from entering Youtube 😛 (Though that doesn’t restrict me much, long live! :)). Waiting for the HD ones to be posted on a worldwide site.

  16. Rhanor

    I mean long time fan, ’cause I’am not that tall or long :)…

  17. juneau69

    Awesome! This is my first video by you. Will be looking for more. Excellent job.

  18. Thomas Lucas

    Folks… we’ll get this onto VUZE in HD next week… along with two other clips in the works. We’ll also have them on Joost. After that… suggestions for more topics?

  19. BMcP

    Sometimes Mars is easy to distinguish from the other stars, I remember late last year easily finding Mars with it’s distinct red glow.

    I seriously need to find someplace with no light pollution. :/

  20. Nevermind, for some reason the first couple times I clicked it said it was no longer available on youtube.

  21. SJ Gaywont

    A question was brought up when I passed on the link for the video to a couple friends. At the part where Phil says that ‘to scale’ the rings are thinner then a piece of paper he then goes on to discuss the gaps. I assume the ‘to scale’ means reducing Saturn to Earth scale but that’s just an assumption. Can anyone confirm the actual scale suggested?

  22. Andy Beaton

    I remember doing public nights at McCormick and turning the telescope onto Saturn. People refused to believe it was real. They thought we’d put a sticker on the end of the ’scope.

    Man, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I’d could buy a beer at least. My theory is that movies have taught people that things in space go whiz, so seeing something perfectly still is an uncanny experience for them. Plus, Saturn is just so alien looking to start with – it looks like nothing the average person sees in their day-to-day lives.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    As someone else implied, you definitely have a talent for presentation and explanation, and you are highly entertaining to watch as well. It’s very apparent you are passionate about what you present.

    I’ll augment that with the line that runs through. Often when science is presented there is a tendency for the “wow” moments as opposed to a narrative. Not so here, which is how professionalism should be.

    I wouldn’t change anything, it works. But I note that the tempo isn’t matching the thread, at least up here in the slower latitudes. You get the narrative after the fact instead of while listening, which is distracting. And the lack of breaks compounds that particular problem. I’ll bet a longer format would exhaust some listeners.

  24. Quiet Desperation

    I seriously need to find someplace with no light pollution. :/

    Last time I was out there at night, the Mojave desert is still good. Milky Way is bright. Zodiacal light clearly seen. Andromeda galaxy easily naked eye. Orion nebula in high power binoculars is stunning. So many stars that it crosses what I call the depth threshold: that’s where the sky starts to have a real sense of depth instead of the “few lights on a sphere” effect you get in cities.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I assume the ‘to scale’ means reducing Saturn to Earth scale but that’s just an assumption.

    To the scale of a paper, the only reference he mentioned, would be my guess. Projecting the rings onto a US Letter size [I’ll assume US isn’t going metric any time soon] paper would make the rings thinner than the paper.

    See it this way; if Saturn masses roughly 100 times Earth, assuming the same density, it is roughly 5 times as large in diameter. [Actually it is 95 times in mass, and 9-10 times in diameter, according to Wikipedia.]

    So any of those house size boulders would be roughly man-sized, say 2m, instead of house-sized, say 10 m, across. Not quite paper thin; and the rings would be thicker than that.

  26. Nicole

    LOL, MikeS and Andy. Count me in on that nickel as well. We get the same reaction in the Doghouse telescopes. “You sure that’s real?” But the best is when students who don’t want to be there for lab anyway get to go “WOW!” My hypothesis is that they have never looked through a telescope before, or have had little success with amateur telescopes before. (That was my case, but I grew up in light-polluted New York.) All they expect are “stars and blobs.” Maybe they think that only Hubble can take those fantastic pictures… haha surprise!

    Great video!!! I was especially impressed at the explanation for the Cassini division. For some reason that’s a stumbly topic to explain and that was great. What would make that perfect would be a little video of the particle moving with half the period of the moon and getting that “tug” every time they are close. I’m sure I could find one if I was actually teaching. In any case, that’s always fun to draw on the board.

  27. Michelle

    Great stuff, but your title made me groan. The amount of times I seen that line, I just hate it…

  28. KC

    It’s a good introductory video. I wasn’t really impressed, but keep in mind I’m a bit jaded on Saturn’s rings. Don’t get me wrong: They’re truly the crown jewel of the solar system, but I remember the first rush of data when Pioneer 11 showed the rings were more complicated than we could see from earth, and then Voyager 1 sent more info, and even more from Voyager 2. Shepherding moons, twisted rings, moons that swap orbits. The discovery that Mimas looks like the “Deathstar.” At some point . . . well, call it jaded.

    I still like to look at Saturn’s rings through a telescope. They’re truly awesome.

    BTW, even in areas with moderate light pollution, it’s possible to pick out the color difference between Mars and Saturn.

  29. Eddie

    Hi guys – i noticed that if you click the link or actually go through to youtube @ – then you can choose to view the higher quality version. It’s slightly better than the version embedded on the BA site

    Great vid Phil!



  30. IBY

    Saturn through the telescope just rocks, and it is the first thing I saw. Though, my fave planet is Uranus, I don’t know why :)

  31. Kate

    Great vid, Phil! You do a fine job of giving a basic explanation of the rings of Saturn, and stoke the fires of curiosity for those that want to learn more.

    You have a really easy, conversational way of discussing the wonders of our universe and I think it makes a difference that you’re not “talking at” your audience, but talking “to” them. You’re having a conversation about something that excites and interests you, and it shows.

    Keep up the excellent work, Phil. I can’t wait until my nephews are old enough to be able to understand you so I can show them the wonders that exist in the night sky. :)

  32. It’d probably be rude to quibble about the smallest sizes of ring particles considering that the video is so well-done, huh? (Me = ring nerd.)

  33. J. Greer

    I hope you will produce an instructional DVD with a collection of your astronomy videos. It would be great for the classroom. I would be first in line to purchase.


  34. Dell

    Anyone else find it funny that an ad for ‘Dove Hair Care’ pops up while our favorite bald astronomer is explaining Saturn? Ironical.

  35. Andy Beaton

    Though, my fave planet is Uranus, I don’t know why

    Uranus is my least favourite planet, mostly because I am sick to death of drunken goofs asking if they can see the rings around Uranus. Or the Klingons around Uranus. Those are the only two variations. The rest is just repetition.
    I can’t wait until 2620 when they finally get around to renaming it.

  36. Andy, can I see the twin moons of Uranus? (Sorry, had to throw that in.)

    Saturn was one of the first objects I saw out of a telescope. Even though we have these awesome pictures, there is nothing like actually going out and seeing them for yourself.

    As far as future topics, maybe something on the discoveries of Spirit and Opportunity on Mars, and also something about the existence of water under the icy crusts of the various moons in our Solar system.

  37. LB

    “Saturn – Lord of the Rings” is also the title of a 2004 BBC Horizon documentary about the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. My favorite planetary expert Carolyn Porco is there, as well as many people involved in (preparation of) this fantastic mission. It has nothing to do with BA’s video with the same title.

    Here’s the link to the BBC website

  38. somebody

    cool awsome im coming here often


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