How do planets get rings?

Future exploration of our Solar System’s rings

The answers to why the giant planets Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune don’t have as majestic a set of rings as Saturn, at least in the present, ultimately lie in grasping how rings form, evolve, and in some cases, disappear. Sending a spacecraft to excavate chunks from Saturn’s rings and measure their exact composition, and ideally even bring samples to Earth, would anchor the age and origin of Saturn’s rings.

Likewise, figuring out how Phobos formed would tell scientists if it really is part of an ongoing ring-moon cycle at Mars. While no mission is being planned to study Saturn’s rings, Japan’s Martian Moons eXploration mission, or MMX, will study Phobos and bring samples from it to Earth to help scientists ascertain its age and formation.

The 2023-2032 Planetary Science Decadal Survey—a report produced every 10 years by the US scientific community to guide future NASA missions—recommends sending a spacecraft to Uranus as the highest priority. One of the four major scientific objectives of this Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) mission is to understand the composition, origin, mechanics, and history of the planet’s rings. In the meantime, the recently launched JWST space telescope will observe rings of all the giant planets to spot previously unknown features and help scientists better gauge how they evolve.

The majestic rings of Saturn will wane over time, losing chunks and bits to the planet all the while darkening like soil on our Moon. Even so, Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus will still be erupting water plumes into space to keep the planet’s diffused E-ring alive.

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