Here is the Earth with the Moon (not really discernible) as seen from the Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn, taken on July 19, 2013. Earth is 898 million miles away. Above, of course, are the rings of Saturn.
I have always marveled what it would be like to “fly in the rings of Saturn.” Of course, that’s not easily done. The rings are actually pure ice fragments, some the size of dust and snowflakes, some the size of small cars, a few meters across, all orbiting the planet at orbital speeds.
The above image is an artist’s conception of what floating in the ring might be like.
This means that any craft actually flying “through” the ring would get smashed to pieces by particles slamming into it at orbital speeds. Unless, of course, the spacecraft were able to match the orbit of the rings in direction and speed and approached slowly into the plane of the rings. That would be a dramatic and exciting view, as the craft slowly descended onto the largest flat plane in the solar system.
Thinking about it, the earth is not flat, it’s curved, so even looking out over the seemingly flat plane of the Pacific ocean from the California coast, we’re actually looking at a curved surface. There are very few really flat planes in our world. Yet, the rings of Saturn, with a surface area many hundreds of times as large as that of the entire earth, are completely flat. Looking at such a large flat surface, and approaching it slowly from above or below, without any atmospheric disturbance or clouding, must be otherworldly, literally.
Then, getting really close and starting to resolve the solid plane into many individual ice boulders, pebbles, snowballs and ice crystals, and then finally floating among them, becoming for the moment part of the rings, would be an incredible experience.
Matching orbits with the ring’s structure is not trivial. The speed of particles of the inner ring is about 23.6 km/sec, and those of the outer ring 16.3 km/sec. For comparison, the speed of the International Space Station circling the Earth is 7.7 km/sec. We’re dealing with orbital speeds of twice to three times those of low-earth orbit. It would require a lot of fuel to accelerate a spacecraft to that speed to match orbits in order to dip down into the rings, something not likely to launch any time soon, but I get to dream, don’t I? Sometime in the next few hundred years, a space traveler surely will get to do that. I would like to be that space traveler.
Dreaming about just that, I found that there will be a movie for IMAX titled In Saturn’s Rings coming out in 2014, made exclusively by putting together more than a million individual actual photographs by Cassini, the Hubble Space Telescope, Apollo missions and others. Check out this amazing trailer. I am going to line up for tickets when it’s out.