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  • Online publication date: February 2018

18 - The Origin of Planetary Ring Systems

from III - Ring Systems by Type and Topic



The origin of planetary rings is one of the least understood processes related to planet formation and evolution. Whereas rings seem ubiquitous around giant planets, their great diversity of mass, structure, and composition is a challenge for any formation scenario. Satellite destruction by cometary impacts and meteoroid bombardment seem to be key processes leading to the very low-mass rings of Uranus, Neptune, and Jupiter. By contrast, moon destruction is unlikely to have produced Saturn's much more massive rings recently, so they still represent a strong challenge for astronomers.

Recent advances in our understanding of ring and satellite formation and destruction suggest that these processes are closely interconnected, so that rings and satellites may be two aspects of the same geological system. Indeed, rings may not be only beautiful planetary ornaments, but, possibly, an essential step in the process of satellite formation, at least for the small and mid-sized moons. These recent advances have taken advantage of the many tantalizing results from the Cassini mission, as well as advances in numerical simulation techniques. However, no single theory seems able to explain the origin of the different planetary rings known in our solar system, and it now seems evident that rings may result from a variety of processes like giant collisions, tidal stripping of comets or satellites, as well as planet formation itself. Understanding rings appears to be an important step toward understanding the origin and evolution of planetary environments.

Most work on the origin of rings has been devoted to Saturn, and somewhat less to the rings of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. So our chapter will be mainly focused on the case of Saturn. However, processes that are common to all rings or particularly to those of Saturn will be clearly delineated. In order to build any theory of ring formation it is important to specify physical processes that affect the long-term evolution of rings, as well as to describe the different observations that any ring formation model should explain. This is the topic of Section 18.2. In Section 18.3, we focus our attention on Saturn's rings and their main properties, and then discuss the pros and cons of a series of ring formation models. We also discuss the link between rings and satellites. In Section 18.4, we extend the discussion to the other giant planets (Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune).

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