Saturn’s most distinctive feature is the thousands of rings that orbit the planet. Despite the fact that the rings look like continuous hoops of matter encircling the giant planet, each ring is actually made of tiny individual particles. Saturn’s rings consist largely of water ice mixed with smaller amounts of dust and rocky matter. Data from the Cassini spacecraft indicate that the environment around the rings is like an atmosphere, composed principally of molecular oxygen.
The ring system is divided into 5 major components: the G, F, A, B, and C rings, listed from outside to inside (but in reality, these major divisions are subdivided into thousands of individual ringlets). The F and G rings are thin and difficult to see, while the A, B, and C rings are broad and easily visible. The large gap between the A ring and and the B ring is called the Cassini division. One of Saturn’s moons, namely; Enceladus is the source of Saturn’s E-ring. The moon’s geyser-like jets create a gigantic halo of ice, dust, and gas that helps feed Saturn’s E ring.
Enceladus has a profound effect on Saturn and its environment. It’s the only moon in our solar system known to substantially influence the chemical composition of its parent planet. The whole magnetic environment of Saturn is weighed down by the material spewing from Enceladus, which becomes plasma — a gas of electrically charged particles. This plasma, which creates a donut-shaped cloud around Saturn, is then snatched by Saturn’s A-ring, which acts like a giant sponge where the plasma is absorbed.
Credit: Bjorn Jonsson, NASA/JPL/SSI