What if Earth really did have rings?

By Phil Plait | December 21, 2009 7:30 am

By now, you’ve probably seen this very interesting video. It imagines what it would look like if Earth had rings like those of Saturn!

This is a very cool idea, and it went viral pretty quickly when it came out a few weeks ago. And of course I’m for anything that increases people’s interest in astronomy.

But the nitpicker in me can’t resist thinking the idea through a little more. The video is accurate as far as it goes, discussing the geometry of the rings and the viewing angles. But it makes some assumptions that, in real life (if you can say such a thing), are worth investigating further. Note: some of this is speculation on my part, based on my knowledge of astronomy and some reading I’ve done on rings. I wouldn’t take this as gospel (I wouldn’t take anything as gospel); instead think of it as idle brain stimulation.

With this ring, I thee shred

Earth with rings image courtesy Damien Bouic.

First, could Earth have rings? Sure! It’s unclear exactly how Saturn (or the other four outer giant planets) got their rings, but there is more than one mechanism to create them. A small moon could get hit by an asteroid or comet, shattering it. An impact on the Earth itself, if it were big enough, could create rings (the impact that formed the Moon billions of years ago may have done just that). That would kinda suck for us, though. Saturn’s moon Enceladus has geysers which may resupply the planet’s A and E rings (though that’s more of a replenishment than actually creating them).

Rings of rock and ice

OK, so Earth could have rings. But would they last? That’s an interesting question. Saturn’s rings are made of ice, but Saturn is 1.4 billion kilometers (850 million miles) from the Sun, where things are cold. At the Earth’s distance from the Sun, small ice particles would quickly be destroyed by sunlight (regular old sunlight would help sublimate the ice from a solid to a gas, and UV light would break apart water molecules). So if the Earthrings were made of ice like Saturn’s they’d disappear pretty quickly, certainly on a timescale far shorter than the age of the Earth.

If the Earthrings were made of rock they might last a longer time. Pressure from sunlight might be an important thing to think about for the smallest particles (though they would also be replenished as bigger particles grind together)… as well as perturbations from the Sun’s and Moon’s gravity. To be honest that’s a bit above my pay grade to do that calculation (and it looks like long-term stability would really be an issue), but let’s assume that small pebbles and such could last long enough to give Earth a ring system. Would Earthrings look like they did in that video?

Does this ring make me look fat?

hst_saturnWell, yes and no. They would still be bright enough to see at night. Ice is shiny, which is one reason Saturn’s rings are so bright. Rock is much duller, so the Earthrings wouldn’t be quite so shiny. But the Moon is made of rock that is very dark, yet is incredibly bright in the night sky. It’s safe to assume the rings would be obvious at night then, too.

One interesting bit: the rings would look different if you were seeing sunlight reflected off them versus seeing the Sun through them. Sunlight seen through them would be reddened if the rings were dusty, just like a sunset looks very red if there is haze and junk in the air. Saturn’s rings look very different when Cassini has taken images showing them from the unlit side. So in the summer the rings might look one way when you see sunlight reflected off them, and different in the winter when they are seen from the unlit side.

Would they be visible during the day? I think so, since the Moon is easily visible during the day. Being close and broad, they should be bright enough to spot above the brightness of the sky itself.

God of the gaps

What about the structure? In the video they simply took Saturn’s rings and transposed them on the Earth. But that’s not really accurate, because of the gaps.

If Mimas really were a Death Star,
clearing a gap in the rings would be a lot easier.

Saturn’s rings are not a simple disk, but actually made up of thousands of separate rings. The big dark gap in the rings is called the Cassini Division, discovered by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in the 17th century. Saturn’s moon Mimas is responsible for that gap; any particle in the Cassini Division orbits Saturn in half the time Mimas does, and so it feels a periodic tug from the moon (called a resonance). That pulls the particles clear from that region, carving a gap. Other broad gaps in the rings are from other moon resonances, while some of the narrow ones are from small moons in the gaps gravitationally clearing out nearby ring particles.

So the actual Earthrings would look substantially different than in the video. There may not be any major gaps in the rings, or there might be numerous smaller ones (which wouldn’t be hard to see from the ground). The color would be different, too.

Saturn’s rings, annotated with names and distance from the center of the planet. Click to embiggen beyond your wildest dreams.

One ring to rue them all

How would this affect life on Earth? They would be more than just pretty features! The shadow they cast would change the amount of sunlight reaching the ground; in the northern hemisphere summer the Earthring shadow would be cast on the southern hemisphere (where it would be winter), and vice-versa. That means winters in both hemispheres might be somewhat colder. Plants would have to adapt to the lessened amount of light. The actual diminution of light would depend on how wide and how thick the rings are, too.

Ground-based optical astronomy would be screwed pretty well. It’s hard enough to observe when the Moon is out; imagine a sky filled with rings! It would actually be difficult to see stars at all if you lived at latitudes where the rings ate up a goodly-sized piece of the sky. I wonder how legends and myths would be changed on such an Earth?

And the Earthrings would certainly affect space travel! They would be a major hazard to spaceflight; you really wouldn’t want to plow through them at several kilometers per second unless breathing vacuum is something you enjoy. Also, the rings would be located in the very worst possible place: right over the Earth’s equator. That’s the best place to put satellites — they’re easier to launch near the equator (you get a boost of 1600 kph from the Earth’s spin that way) and that’s where you want to put geosynchronous satellites for weather and communications. A lot of astronomical (and no doubt spy) satellites are in polar orbits, but again you wouldn’t want them plunging through the rings twice each orbit. Space debris is a bad enough problem now with all the junk in orbit; having billions of particles out there wouldn’t help any!

So the Earthrings would be incredible, and lovely, and ethereal, but they would come at a terrible cost: astronomy and space travel. I’m sure we’d figure out some way to launch rockets anyway — giant absorbing puffy shields around rockets, maybe — but that would come with its own cost of high mass, which makes getting to orbit that much harder.

Ringing off

So all in all, it’s fun to think about, and remarkable to simulate and actually see in an animation — what a sight they would be! — but all in all, I think I like the Earth the way it is.

Image courtesy Damien Bouic.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science, Space
MORE ABOUT: Earth, rings, Saturn

Comments (103)

  1. Quiet Desperation

    It casts shadows… hey! We just solved global warming! Quick! Construct a ring around the Earth!

  2. MarkW

    “It’s unclear exactly how Saturn (or the other four outer giant planets) got their rings”

    Um. Shouldn’t that be “three”?

  3. DaveS

    Not seeing stars, having a ring-width to measure, one has to wonder how celestial navigation would have developed.

    Also, since the ring looks like an arch from the earth, I wonder how it would have affected art and architecture. Even philosophy.

    Perhaps we would have needed to develop spaceflight which avoids the rings. Like very low orbit, not equatorial, and an injection phase that boosts the craft outside the rings in half an orbit. Kind of like how they handle the radiation bands.

  4. Sticks

    Don’t we have rings already, except that we call them space junk

  5. Jamey

    @MarkW: *EVIL GRIN* You forget Nemesis, that lonely wanderer of the Oort Cloud that periodically sends comets inwards, to trigger the ejection of masses from Jupiter to become Venus.

    Oh, wait, they spotted that with the Hubble’s guidance scopes, and it turns out to be a bit of rock around a mile or so big. Never mind. Yes, three.

    Wonder if Pluto/Charon could have some kind of ring system…

  6. Erasmussimo

    I am curious to know how much detailed analysis of the radial structure of the rings has been made. There is, after all, a tremendous amount of information in this image, and a thorough analysis bodes interesting results. For example, I notice some lovely harmonics in two tiny gaps just inward of Encke’s Gap. Do we know what caused those harmonics? Has every structure in the rings been attributed to a specific orbital resonance?

    And I would not want the Earth to have rings — it would get in the way of all other astronomy. For example, from my northern latitude, it is unlikely that I would ever be able to see the center of the galaxy in Sagittarius. Nuke the rings, I’d say!

  7. Thomas C

    Phil, when I saw the video one of the nitpicks that jumped out at me was the rings’ appearance in the ground-based shots, particularly the daytime ones. Shouldn’t the rings be purely additive, i.e. always lighter than the sky? It’s not like the shadowed side of the moon appears in a darker shade of blue than the surrounding sky – all that blue stuff is between it and us! :)

    Also, your closing comments reminded me of the planet Krikkit from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, whose a generally friendly and happy indigenous civilization finally launches into space, punches through the thick visually-impenetrable dust cloud surrounding their planet, and sees stars for the first time… with disastrous results.

  8. nobody

    Really nice post!!!!

    Typo: “One ring to rue them all”/.rue->rule

  9. SionH
  10. Becca Stareyes

    Erasmussimo, a lot of the structure is mapped to resonances, especially in the A ring. Saturn has a boatload of moons, most of which can tug on the rings to create overdensities and underdensities. Most of what I see in that picture in the A ring look like density waves from resonances.

  11. andy

    IIRC the Moon would be a major problem for a ring system – for a start it is quite massive relative to the Earth and secondly it is significantly inclined relative to the equator (it is better aligned to the plane of the Earth’s orbit in fact). Neither of these things do any favours for long-term stability of ring systems, so it would likely disperse within a very short timescale relative to the age of the solar system.

    Incidentally it has been proposed that an asteroid impact at the end of the Eocene created a ring system around the Earth for a million years or so (O’Keefe, 1980, Nature 285, 309) but I’m not sure how well this idea has held up.

  12. @nobody I believe it’s wordplay and not a typo; he’s using “rue” as opposed to “rule” to suggest we would regret having a ring.

  13. Matt

    I’m thinking that the constant clashing of ring particles would offer nightly meteor showers. That would be kinda fun!

    “There may not be any major gaps in the rings, or there might be numerous smaller ones (which wouldn’t be hard to see from the ground).”

    Wouldn’t there be one major gap due to our little friend, Luna?

  14. Amanda (#12): ding ding ding ding ding! :)

  15. Matt (13): It depends on the extent of the rings. They’d have to stretch waaaaay out to get to a point where simple resonances with the Moon would make gaps. It would be interesting to simulate that, but my gut feeling is that by the time they got that wide other forces would disturb them too much, making them unstable. Just a gut feeling though.

  16. Interesting article. But I do have to point out the misuse of the abbreviation “kph” for “kilometres per hour”. kph literally translates to “thousands per hour” which is meaningless, and I see this popping up everywhere.

    In SI, lowercase k is kilo (1,000) and lowercase m is metre. And the only choice for abbreviating kilometre is “km”. Therefore, the proper abbreviation for kilometres per hour is “km/h”.

    Nice to see you using metric, though. I suppose that is a scientist thing, considering that the rest of the science community on the planet uses metric.

  17. @ DaveS:

    I wonder how it would have affected art and architecture. Even philosophy.

    Since so many of the world’s cultures evolved mythologies explaining the “arch” that is the Milky Way in the night sky, I’m sure bright rings would have generated some fairly elaborate customs.

    Another interesting idea is the possible benefit to astronomy, or at least to our understanding of the true nature of the universe. Imagine if a ringed-Earth Galileo aimed his telescope at the “Bridge of God” and discovered it was not a solid bridge at all, but in fact myriad tiny bits spinning around? Would the theologians have instantly tied him to the stake to prevent this knowledge from getting out? Or would it be seen as proof of human souls spinning off to heaven?

    I can imagine a whole industry of itinerant “soul spotters” taking their optik tubes from town to town: See your dearly departed loved ones, one last time! Just one gold coin for a peek!

  18. Ken

    Wow. Just *imagine* the cultural ramifications…

  19. bigjohn756

    Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all have rings.

    If the rings existed then would civilization have arisen on Earth? I expect that the shadows might cause enough cooling to prevent sufficient plant life, if any, to provide a proper atmosphere for life to prosper. Just a thought.

    I have a feeling that the Moon would make the rings resemble a vinyl record which was left sitting on a hot radiator.

  20. Sili

    Emily Lackdawalla had some additional comments on Planetary Radio recently (sorry, haven’t heard them in order). She mentions that nights on the far side of the rings from the Sun would be very dark indeed. And she ponders what sorta myths woulda grown up around such a prominent feature of the firmament (Bifrost – go home).

  21. Mike

    @Phil: “I wouldn’t take anything as gospel”


  22. Chris

    As was mentioned, the rings would need to be made of rock to avoid subliming away this close to the sun. Rings are not stable affairs, Saturn is constantly being battered by bits of it’s own ring system that plunge into the atmosphere. On Saturn, thats not an issue, since there’s really nothing for them to fall onto.

    On Earth, you’d have a constant rain of stone and fire underneath the rings, creating a burning scar that wraps all the way around the planet. Constant impacts 24/7, making a dead zone who knows how wide. What would that do to global wind patterns? Ocean currents? It would make travel from one hemisphere to the other extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible (you wanna try walking through a hundred miles of galactic shooting gallery?).

    I’d be willing to bet that if Earth had rings, we wouldn’t be here to notice.

  23. Phil,

    No doubt this would have had quite an affect on the folklore and mythology of the planet, but what about geocentrism? The first person to view the rings from a couple of different latitudes would of had at least a clue that the sky wasn’t a sphere.

    Of course the nay-sayers would just have said that the sphere started juuussst outside the circumference of the rings, right?


  24. Daniel (16): I disagree. People use mph all the time to mean miles per hour, not “million (or mille) per hour”, and kph is widely used. Language means what people mean it to mean.

  25. Wouldn’t rings around the Earth (that are more narrow close to the equator and more broad as you move away from the equator) give humans the idea much earlier in history that the world is NOT flat? I think that would have led to earlier discovery of “The New World”, and provided better global navigation, since the rings would be easier to spot than a pole-star. Earlier global travel might have had us industrialized sooner (due to travel and colonization needs) and trying to reach space much earlier in our history too.

  26. Albert J. Hoch

    Hi Phil,
    I’ll boldly go where I’ve never been and speculate that if rings were possible we’d have them. Preventing them is a combination of the Hill radius and light pressure (possibly heat with regard to ice particles). Note that we see no rings on any of the inner planets. During the formation there was lots of stuff that was available for rings but its gone now.

    Remember the final scene from the movie “Dune” which displayed a night sky on Arrakis containing two large moons? One of the two being full and the other in half phase! Perhaps you could remark on why its unlikely to have stable orbits with two satellites that have mass more than say ten percent of the primary.

    Jack Hoch

  27. I definitely think that an Earth-ring would have been regarded as some kind of “holy” symbol. I was struck by the shot at 1:26 in the video of the beam of light “rising from the Earth.” (Really, the ring seen edge on.) I could see this as being interpreted as pointing to some gods’ temple. (Perhaps one on each “side of the world.”) People would make dangerous treks to reach the temple of the gods, always failing of course. Since the rings stretch East-West, perhaps there would have been an increased desire to travel to the “ends” of those sky-bands thus pushing Columbus’ voyage up more. In the modern day, any plan to punch a hole in the rings would likely meet up with protests by religious groups opposed to harming “God’s Rings.”

    I also wonder what tidal effects such rings would have. The Moon already affects the tides. Having a bunch of orbiting rocks up there can’t possibly just leave sea level where it is, can it? Would our already 71% water-covered Earth be covered even more by water? Would the pull be greater at the equator (where the rings are) and less at the poles? Thus, would there be less ice on the poles and more warm water at the equators? Would that counter the cooling effect the rings might have?

  28. Erasmussimo

    If readers will forgive some serious triviality on my part, I’d like to explore further the series of gaps I mentioned earlier. The first is 1061 km inward from Encke’s Gap, and the others are at separations of 5 km, 3 km, 2 km, and 1 km. (These distances are eyeballed, not calculated from the entire dataset.) Now, this looks like a classic harmonic series, but there’s a serious objection to this being an orbital harmonic: they’re too close together. The orbital periods represented by these gaps differ by only a few seconds. What could possibly generate harmonics of such tiny values?

  29. Pareidolius

    Very cool “what if” but really, Ave Maria? It’s not just a pretty tune if you understand the lyrics. Ugh. How about Claire de Lune?

  30. Not to derail the thread, but… Daniel (16) is right. Yes, colloquial language is fluid, but standardized language is supposed to be extremely, pedantically consistent. Maybe you haven’t taken an exam lately, but plenty of profs dock points for incorrect or lazy use of units (as they should). I know it’s informal here, but please encourage the bloody standard lest somebody screw up another Mars lander, kthx :p :)

    (p.s. i still love the blog; p.p.s I have a flameproof suit)

  31. Quiet Desperation

    Shouldn’t the rings be purely additive, i.e. always lighter than the sky?

    Heh, that’s a peeve of mine, too. A *lot* of space art makes that mistake by having a planet in distance of a landscape scene, and the dark part of the planet is darker than the rest of the sky.

    but please encourage the bloody standard lest somebody screw up another Mars lander

    OK. Furlongs per fortnight it is then!

  32. Carter

    A bit off-topic, but as a geologist I took more notice to the little picture of Mimas. Mimas’ “Death Star cannon” impact crater seems to have a dome in the middle! WHOA! I haven’t read too much about Mimas, unfortunately, but I’d hypothesize that the impact created a molten area or perhaps punched a hole through to the heated interior of the satellite. If the latter was the case, it’s possible that decompression melting liquefied some of the underlying asthenosphere. This would rise up and erupt at the surface. Since the environment is extremely cold on Mimas, the molten material would be much more viscous than similar eruptions on Earth, and would build up as a lava dome, like what happens at the volcano on Montserrat.

    Is this feature something that has been extensively studied, and if so, could someone direct me to a place where I could find reading about it? I love this stuff. I may study geology, but my hobby is astronomy and cosmology; exogeology logically follows as a great interest. Thanks!

  33. A wonderfully inspirational and Sagan-esque speculation!

  34. 30. Pareidolius Says: “…but really, Ave Maria? It’s not just a pretty tune if you understand the lyrics.”

    True. I, too, thought it an odd choice politically, but perfect aesthetically. Personally, I prefer Bach’s “Ave” to Schubert.

    - Jack

  35. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan

    I remember a SF story where Earth was threatening to withhold water supplies from Martian colonists, and the colonists tow an ice asteroid to Mars, and then offer to sell Earth water.

    On that note, the SF Fanboy in me wants us to tow an ice asteroid within the Roche limit, blow the thing up, and create rings which would also reduce incident solar radiation and give us more time to get our crap together on fighting global warming.

    Impractical of course, because of the risks involved and the difficulty in controlling the rings formed (difficult to not make them too small [useless] or too big [hello Ice Age]). Still, more fun idea than other crazy geoengineering schemes.

  36. mike burkhart

    I think Phill might have read the novel of 2001 a space oddysey (this wasn’t in the movie) but Arther Clarke predicts the Earth will have a ring made up of nuts,blots and tools that space dock workers carelesy let get loose during the construction of space craft in orbit . I think he maybe right about this so maybe a future ring of Earth won’t be made of ice and rock but of junk.

  37. Stephen P

    “Nice to see you using metric, though. I suppose that is a scientist thing, considering that the rest of the science community on the planet uses metric.”

    Not exactly – everyone on the planet uses metric, scientists or not. Well, except for one eccentric country that insists on being well behind everyone else, and a second that can’t quite make up its mind. All other countries (200 or thereabouts) use metric.

  38. Dave

    Well, the shuttle seems to get hit by paint chips and other tiny debris every flight, so we have a de facto ring, but one that is very sparsely populated.

    I’d love to see a sim of the rings and the moon. IMHO, the moon would cause some wild deviations in the rings, possibly raining a good portion down on Earth and sending an equal amount out into space. In the end, no rings (your theories may vary…).

  39. Carter

    @Stephen P:

    Good point. I can’t stand all the messed up math going into figuring out how long a few feet or a mile is! And I certainly can’t remember how many cups to a gallon. The gallon’s only redeeming quality is that it is quite close to the volume of four liters (litres?). And why would anyone want a weighing system that isn’t the same anywhere in the universe?! Things weigh less at the top of a mountain in Colorado (hardly noticeable, sure) than they do on a beach in Cali. Mass is so much more useful. I should write my congresswoman before the caffeine wears off.

  40. hhEb09'1

    No, MoonShark, Daniel is wrong and Phil is right. I mean, think about it, you all didn’t even object even a little to “hour”. I know *that* is not metric! :)

    My contribution to the nit-picking: it looks to me like the view of the rings in Paris is to the south (good), but I think it is to the south in Rio de Janeiro too.

  41. Acronym Jim

    Perhaps we wouldn’t have launched artificial satellites, but would it have been feasible to use larger existing ring material as a bases for monitoring equipment? Or would physics not allow for earth-ring particles to be large enough to land said equipment on?

  42. Wow, that was a lot of puns.

    I have a question though. Would the rings be as close to Earth as they are depicted in the video? At what point would they simply fall back on to the planet? I would think that they would have to look completely different proportionately from Saturn’s rings to be stable.

  43. @hhEb09’1: The hour has been accepted for use with the SI standard as of 1968. And it has an exact definition. Read the brochure.

  44. Michael Swanson

    That’s gorgeous! I want rings! Quick, somebody blow up the Moon!

  45. While the earth/ring speculation is a fun thought experiment, I think #23 has it right: There would be no people on earth to enjoy these views. That’s not to say there’d be no life at all, but to simply paste a ring behind a modern city’s skyline is ridiculous in its implication that life/humans/culture would appear generally the same, only with rings.

    The cumulative effects of falling debris, sunlight blockage, and a dozen other life-affecting forces of rocky rings would pretty much guarantee that weather and/or geologic conditions over millions or billions of years would sufficiently alter the biota of the planet in a pretty major way from “day one”.

    Then again, if some sort of intelligent humanoid could arise under those circumstances, it would indeed be interesting to see what sort of effect rings would have on planetary culture and development. I am surprised no here has suggested a sci-fi book that covers this, as I’m sure more than one must exist (though I know of none).

    Captain Buzz-Kill, out!

  46. FWIW like others have said, I’m awfully curious how ring-shadows would change the adaptation strategies of the plant kingdom, let alone any sort of sentient culture.

  47. 36. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan Says:

    I remember a SF story where Earth was threatening to withhold water supplies from Martian colonists, and the colonists tow an ice asteroid to Mars, and then offer to sell Earth water.

    IIRC, that was The Martian Way, by Isaac Asimov.


  48. Thanks, MoonShark.

    Some may see it as picky, but this is science and loose interpretations of language lead to pitfalls.

    It reminds me of the Feynman story: In his younger days (university age) he realized that mathematical symbols where nothing more than arbitrary labels, and could really be anything. So he invented his own system, and it worked fine. Then one day he realized that nobody else knew what the heck his equations were saying, and that is when he fully understood the importance — and power — of standardization.

    SI base units: m = meter. Prefix k = 10^3. And the SI base unit of time is s (second). (Abbreviations for “mile” have been poorly defined.)

    Love the blog, by the way. I first learned of Phil through Skepticality, which I have listened to from episode 1.

  49. Robert L

    Reminds me of the old shaggy dog stories, one of a set whose punch line was:

    “I didn’t know the man, but he’s a dead ringer for his brother”

  50. llewelly

    “It’s unclear exactly how Saturn (or the other four outer giant planets) got their rings”

    Um. Shouldn’t that be “three”?

    Of course. Neptunene, after all, got demoted to the status of dwarf giant planet.

  51. Tom (H. Type)

    It would be interesting to compare today’s (imaginary) rings to those in medieval paintings or even early (per-space flight) photographs.
    I would think that the literally thousands of orbiting satellites, used upper stages and various kinds of man-made space junk would all have a small but no zero impact on the millions of tiny particles making up earth rings. Over time (50-60 years) there would be a defined visually detectable change in the ring structure.
    I wonder if the people on that ringed Earth will look up, compare the beautiful ring system with then and now, and realized the impact they have on their environment.

    Naaaw…the tin foiled headed WooWoos will call it proof of Aliens, what am I thinking?

  52. llewelly

    Interesting article. But I do have to point out the misuse of the abbreviation “kph” for “kilometres per hour”. kph literally translates to “thousands per hour” which is meaningless …

    Nonsense! As you said yourself, the proper abbreviation for “thousands” is “t”, not “k”. “kph” therefor translates to kiloparsec hours. This, of course, is the unit used to measure the velocity of the Millennium Falcon.

  53. This, of course, is the unit used to measure the velocity of the Millennium Falcon.


  54. amphiox


    We don’t have to assume that the rings were there from day one. Rings can just as easily be transient phenomenon. So for this thought experiment we can assume the rings formed (say from the break-up of a long-period comet or NEA that strayed within Earth’s Roche limit) relatively recently, after the appearance of the first humans, but before the evolution of the modern, conscious human mind (for scenarios where the rings are present from the “beginning” of human history, as it were), or after (for scenarios where there may have been eyewitness accounts, and subsequent legends about, the actual formation of the rings.)


    Maybe not practical now, but hold that thought. A more controlled version of the same may just be what will be needed to extend the future habitability of the earth as the sun continues to increase in luminosity over the next 0.5 – 1.0 billion years.

  55. amphiox

    I wonder if such rings would end up inhibiting the development astronomy/spaceflight by interfering with ground-based observation, or actually promoting it by providing a complex, nearby system of objects to study and inspire interest.

    Also, what is the likelihood that an equatorial ring system like this, aside from interfering with the launches themselves, would interfere with the functioning of GPS satellite systems?

  56. Michael Swanson

    @ #46

    It’s okay for you to poke holes in the science, but it’s also okay for you simply enjoy a thought experiment and some very beautiful renderings. Really. Enjoy them!

    I was trying to imagine what a civilization that lived at the equator, their whole history under a thin sliver that bisects the sky, would think when they caught their first glimpse of the rings from a higher latitude. Or of how much astronomers would be annoyed by them; it’s bad enough that the sun and the moon are in the way and too bright now!

  57. Woody Tanaka

    “I can’t stand all the messed up math going into figuring out how long a few feet or a mile is! And I certainly can’t remember how many cups to a gallon. The gallon’s only redeeming quality is that it is quite close to the volume of four liters (litres?).”

    LOL. Amusing. As one who grew up in the USA, I am all for the metric system, except for the fact that it’s not the least bit intuitive, whatsoever. The only exception being, of course, for the liter. More precisely, “2 liters” is an intuitive measure, being the size of the big bottle of soda.

  58. I read not too long ago about a pre-communication satellite effort that created a cloud of metallic needles in orbit. It was to reflect radio signals better than the ionosphere did. I think it did what it was supposed to but was quickly rendered obsolete and serves as a hazard now.
    With this in mind, I’m wondering how the rings would help or hinder communication by reflection.

  59. hhEb09'1

    Well, of course it has, MoonShark! As the brochure says, “Other non-SI units, such as the units of time and angle, are so deeply embedded in the history and culture of the human race that they will continue to be used for the foreseeable future.” That was my point.

    What do you all make of “ppm”, from the brochure?

    And one more nit, the view of Quito, Ecuador, seems to be towards the vertical equatorial ring, in the general direction of what looks like Cotopaxi, which is more south of Quito, but I’ve never been there.

  60. SkepTTic

    Personally, I think Saturn looks like a tramp with all those cheap rings :)

  61. RobJ

    @Woody Tanaka (#58)

    Right, but 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 5.5 yards to a rod, 4 rods to a chain, 10 chains to a furlong, and 8 furlongs to a mile makes perfect, intuitive sense :p

  62. Arlo

    It’s interesting to wonder how, if we did have a stable ring system (and perhaps no moon), such a thing would have influenced religious myths over time.

  63. Until we can build our own, maybe Earth doesn’t deserve rings.

  64. Benjamin

    I like Acronym Jim’s idea of using the rings as a benefit to space exploration. They would give you a lot of raw material to play with if you wanted to build structures in space; if you could get machinery up there safely you might be able to do some marvellous things, I imagine.

    DaveS’s idea about celestial navigation is very interesting. You’d clearly be able to tell your latitude from careful measurement of ring width, but as you’re restricting yourself to a smaller angle, your error would be larger with primitive techniques than measuring the much greater angle to the Celestial Pole. If there were identifiable features in the rings, though, this would come in handy for determining longitude: you could both measure the time at which an object of given RA passes overhead and also compare to the ring features observed, giving you two independent data which would, I imagine, have been helpful for accurately pinning down longitude by astronomical tables.

  65. Travis


    There is a volcano due west of Quito. I don’t know if that was the one in the picture though.

    As for metrication, I’d be interested in a new Cost Vs Benefit study on the matter here in the USA. It would cost tens of billions to implement and some industries, like construction, would likely never agree to give up US customary units lest there be a hodge podge of homes built with metric lumber and those without necessitating two tool sets and building standards.

  66. gus

    Earth used to have Rings, now they’re the Moon and we COULD launch clear of them, only geostationary orbits may be a problem but for us the rings may not be in that close, e.g. average orbit should be around the orbit of the Moon.

    I don’t think you really thought this one through.

  67. hhEb09'1

    You don’t have to change the *size* of things, just what you call it. :)

    Like football–their soccer goal is still 3 yards by 8 yards, but officially it’s metric.

  68. Troy

    My we geeks are certainly nitpicky! It is a cool video. True enough there shouldn’t be the same gap pattern caused by the influence of Saturn’s moon. It hurts my head trying to think how the moon would create a gap in them (and what of Earth’s companion 3753 Cruithne?). As others have alluded to the Moon and rings are probably incompatible. Another interesting thought experiment perhaps the rings during a solar eclipse and also the view from the Moon. Interestingly enough since most of Saturn’s moons also orbit in the same plane as the ring system the view of the glorious ring system is likely non-existent, while the 5 degree tilt of the Moon’s orbit should give some view of the ring system.

  69. Levi in NY

    What about the gravitational effects of the rings? Depending on how much matter was there, I’d imagine they would have some kind of effect, but unlike the tides it would be an unchanging effect, since the mass would be uniformly distributed around the Earth’s equator.

  70. Jon

    It’s interesting to imagine a world where the number of meteor impacts close to the equator makes life hazardous to impossible there. The impact on the spread of civilisations would be huge, and we might even need to resort to space travel to discover the other hemisphere… Or would we have assumed it was the edge of the world, and thus that the world was a disc, it’s boundaries deliniated by a majestic arch?

  71. Khannea Suntzu

    I seriously think that as soon as we have a space elevator we’ll have multiple space elevators in no time, with very diverse shapes and functions. And when that happens we;ll have a ring of exported material soon after – in fact, lots of ringed rings, composed themselves of rings that rotate in a north/southernly angle (around the elevator shafts), and far closer to earth than the above structures.

    It’s all exponential growth really. As soon as you have one elevator, you’ll have two in a few years. That makes thousands of elevators in a decade. Each elevator could export tons of material per second, nonstop, 24/7 and that export rate builds up fast. In fact as soon as you have a single space elevator my guess is you’ll have tens of millions of people living in orbit, most of those in shielded diomes (the radiation belts are bad news) while other NEO colonists would eventually be modified to resist radiation. I can easily see this equatorial real estate ring start at a height of a thousand kilometers over the equator (where atmospheric drag drops off to close to negligible).

    Another interesting feature – space elevators are composed of carbon nanotubes. This industry would have a high demand for carbon, to the point of us being able to export all that carbon from earth into orbit.

    Energy would be an afterthought at these massive industrial scale levels. An ocean of high energy solar radiation permeates space. Solar forms would gentle rotate around earth, themselves rotating around their own axis as giant ephemeral flowers of gauze and foil and cables. Grown by nanotechnology the amount of energy we can ‘casually’ harvest in space is several orders of magnitude bigger than we consume on earth today.

    In essence, the tragedy of our times in 2009 is we are stuck on a planetary surface. We can’t even develop any new technologies to ascertain economic growth, many people wan’t less economic growth (even though most voters would FREAK OUT if they were faced with the consequences of economic shrinkage) and our planet is showing wear and tear of this process. So we are like dinosaurs stuck in a gravity well tar pit effectively unable to do anything sensible. First priority for some serious economic and industrial (and scientific and technological) expansion would be to start a self-sustaining and explosively profitable space industry business.

    However try selling *any* of the above notions to your average senile ‘internet tubes’ senator. These people are still clearing dead wood from their ranch and homeloading their ammunition to go out and shoot some deer. These people don’t have a clue what regolith mining or He3 or slingshot propulsion or a van allen belt is. If they would have an idea, there would also be many established busineses paying the senatorial ‘shallow end’ bottomfeeders to not go there, because all of the above would completelu wipe out 90% of established industries. And to have that happen and expect these to be replaced by a hundred times as many new industries would be too big a leap of faith for the corporate sector.

  72. Christina

    Some more cultural considerations with regards to the moons:

    There would be a visible “gap” caused by the Earth’s shadow which would move through the sky during the night, opposite the Sun. That might lead to some interesting legends.

    Could the rings help with early calendars? During winter, the Sun would be on the opposite side of the rings, and during Summer, it would be on the same side, while at the point of the solstices, it would be edge-on. Observing the ring could play an important role in determining exactly when the solstices happened for early cultures. (Would the rings even be *visible* at solstices? Hmm … maybe New Year’s Day could be the first day the rings become visible again, much as, for example, the Islamic calendars’ months are based on when the crescent moon becomes visible at sunset)

    Also, I would assume that the effects of the rings’ brightness would be less at the equator than further away, thus, equatorial areas would probably see an exceptionally large number of observatories. Mountain tops near the equator would be ideal observation spots.

  73. Captain kill-buzz

    I wonder if some humans in some alternate dimension, with their flying cars and fusion drives and wireless brain linked Internet forums, are wondering what life would be like in an earth WITHOUT rings. we don’t have to assume that the rings would have been inhibitors to development, evolution is weird like that: i hear mammals like us are only here because some giant ‘disastrous’ asteroid wiped the hell out of the dinosaurs.
    While it may be safe to assume life would be different, we simple have no way of knowing if the alternate would have been ‘better’ or ‘worse’.
    On a less condescending note, i wonder if the rings as a whole are mobile, and if so could some big company punch out their giant logo on it and have ‘COCA-COLA ENJOY’ spinning all over the globe. that would be AWESOME

  74. Acronym Jim

    Interesting question Levi. I’ll see your oblate spheriod, and raise you a few degrees of equatorial bulge.

  75. JackC

    Phil doesn’t pronounce “kilometer” correctly, why should he care about kph?


    And seriously? A Cost/Benefit analysis for metric conversion in the US? Was one done for that incredibly stupid Daylight Savings Time Change … change? Just the man-hours (in metric hours?) for changing all the computer rules for that must have cost billions (of metric dollars).

    Seriously though…

    I have been wondering about the ring system being equatorial. Is there any actual reason for that? Some above have called for the destruction of the moon to create such a ring – would that particular ring definitely NOT be equatorial?

    I don’t see any physical reason for an equatorial ring system for the Earth – and of course, the existing moon would affect such a ring to the point of disturbing it well away from an equatorial system. To be geo-stationary, of course it would have to be equatorial, but all other orbits (yes, even geo-synchronous orbits) do not have to be equatorial.


  76. bk

    i wonder how it would have impacted science, even religion…

  77. becky'sthoughts
  78. Tony

    We already have rings on earth (in lower earth orbit), artificial rings anyway. We’ve constructed hundreds of satellites, and upon a collision this has come to be thousands of pieces of matter in our lower earth orbit…

  79. stefan

    nasa e tare o iubesc pe alina si azi imi pun dorintasasi reie si sa ma iubesca iarasi

  80. Khannea Suntzu

    Tony, all ‘rings around the earth’ would, if densely compressed into a pile, ft in your garage. Don’t exaggerate the current situation. It ins’t rings – it’s a small minucipal garbage pile.

    “The organization estimates there are also millions of much smaller objects floating around, and all of it combined weighs about 5,500 tons.” Thats less than two loaded jumbo jets.

  81. In response to 66. where Travis Says: “As for metrication, I’d be interested in a new Cost Vs Benefit study on the matter here in the USA.”

    Travis might be interested in the article:,Cost of non-metrication in the USA, that you can find at http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/CostOfNonMetrication.pdf


    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

  82. Christina

    Would falling ring particles really be such a problem? Plait said the rings would probably last a few million years, and the particles would have lower initial velocity, I would think, then an impactor originating from outer space. Even the largest particles would be unlikely to cause widespread damage. I would think that ring particle damage would just be another occassional natural disaster, not much worse than earthquakes orvolcanos. At least, that’s my intuitive impression.

  83. Elias Tandel

    “It casts shadows… hey! We just solved global warming! Quick! Construct a ring around the Earth!”

    Hahaha! Albedo for the win!

  84. Kuntu

    We in fact already do have a ring orbiting around the earth…..and it is ever expanding.
    It is made of all the junk of satellites, and astro refuse that has been dumped in our orbit since humans took to space.

  85. Garrus Vakarian

    Lol it looks like Halo.

  86. Jack P.

    michael swanson(45):
    “That’s gorgeous! I want rings! Quick somebody blow up the Moon!”

    If you blew up the moon, it would either
    a) send a billion pieces of rock into space
    b)cause tons of rock into earth ending all life.

    If you are going to blow up the moon do 12/21/2012
    that way if it b) it will already be doomsday.

    P.S. b) is more likely.

  87. sobeys10

    we would see these rings everywhere in our sky. it would b nice 2 watch em all nite from ur balcony

  88. Lorena

    techically, this is not the Ave Maria, but Ellens dritter Gesang
    and we also use km/h to indicate kilometer per hour, kilo just means one thousand but of what??? that’s what I learned in high school physics
    anyway, in argentina, just kilo means kilogram

  89. Das Boese

    This reminds me of Stanislaw Lem’s “Fiasco”, where a crew of human explorers are tasked with establishing first contact to the inhabitants of another planet. The alien civilization however defies human logic, one of the crazier things they have done (besides filling their entire solar system with automated weapon systems and electronic warfare devices) is to eject a large portion of their planet’s water into space to form an ice ring.

    The humans, inreasingly frustrated with the alien’s unwillingness to communicate and their inability to even understand what is going on in that solar system, eventually destroy the ring with a sun-powered laser, which is enough of a threat for the aliens to finally allow one of the crew to land. He discovers the true nature of the planet’s inhabitants, but dies before he can share it when the laser is turned on the planet because he misses his scheduled radio contact with the ship.

    So yeah, there’s another way to create rings around earth: Eject material from the surface into orbit.

    In fact, we are sort of creating a ring system right now, made up of space junk!
    We’d have to keep doing that for centuries though before it becomes visible to the naked eye of course, and it’s not actually a desirable thing to do.

  90. currias

    neptune got his ring right?

  91. Prathu Khairnar

    Hmm… This actually looks quite fascinating But also Dangerous.

    most of our Satelittles orbit around the equator, the ring could interfere with the communications or even worse fully destroy the satellites by bombarding it. Once these are established they might be very hard to get rid of, Very Hard!

    they would also affect the earths magnetic feild, water would seem to behave differently, we might start to expereince high tides with those rings?

    i know i sound crazy, but suppose those tiny rocks clump together to form a bigger one, we might get into trouble, the gravitational feilf caused by it might also push the earth out of its natural orbit, which is very bad… too close the sun, we burn! Too far away, We freeze.

    in a navigation point of view, this could be used to find out the latitude of the ships current position, which would be really great because , OBVIOUSLY WE DONT HAVE GPS, SO WE ARE GOING TO USE THE OLD FASHIONED TRIGONOMETRY.

    i find this idea useless, unless we could build a ring..which could be something like in the sci-fi game (HALO)… that could be good in one sense (Planetery Defense?)

  92. Keaton

    I love your cromulent use of The Simpsons’ neologism “embiggen” in your ring picture caption!

  93. Chris

    “And the Earthrings would certainly affect space travel!”

    But could there be some positive side effects as well? For example, I would think that the proposed asteroid-harvesting program would be a lot easier with that much debris that close by. So assuming there were any usable materials in the rings (for example, if there actually WERE viable ice rings) it could make that program a lot more viable to harvest materials in space for future long-distance missions.


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