One could become an expert on Saturn's iconic rings pretty easily in the early 1970s, as very little was known about them beyond the distinction between the A, B, and C rings, and the Cassini Division or “gap” between rings A and B (Alexander, 1962; Bobrov, 1970). Water ice was discovered spectroscopically on the ring particle surfaces, and radar and microwave emission observations proved that the particles must be centimeters to meters in size, consisting primarily, not just superficially, of water ice (Pollack, 1975). While a 2:1 orbital resonance with Mimas had long been suspected of having something to do with the Cassini Division, computers of the time were unable to model the subtle dynamical effects that we now know to dominate ring structure.
This innocent state of affairs was exploded by the Voyager 1 and 2 encounters in 1980 and 1981. Spectacular images revealed filigree structure and odd regional color variations, and exquisitely detailed radial profiles of fluctuating particle abundance were obtained from the first stellar and radio occultations, having resolution almost at the scale of single particles. Voyager-era understanding was reviewed by Cuzzi et al. (1984) and Esposito et al. (1984). While the Voyager data kept ring scientists busy for decades, planning which led to the monumentally successful NASA-ESA-ASI Cassini mission, which arrived in 2004, had been under way even before Voyager got to Saturn. A review of pre-Cassini knowledge of Saturn's Rings can be found in Orton et al. (2009).
This chapter will build on recent topical and process-specific reviews that treat the gamut of ring phenomena and its underlying physics in considerable detail (Colwell et al., 2009; Cuzzi et al., 2009; Horányi et al., 2009; Schmidt et al., 2009; Esposito, 2010; Tiscareno, 2013b; Esposito, 2014). We will follow and extend the general organization of Cuzzi et al. (2010), the most recent general discussion of Saturn's rings. For brevity and the benefit of the reader, we will frequently refer to the above review articles instead of directly to the primary literature they discuss. We will focus on new work since 2010, within a general context, and will connect our high-level discussions with more detailed chapters in this volume.