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Rings encircle at least three other planets: Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. But while those rings contain proportionally more rocky material than Saturn's, they are comparative lightweights, perhaps one one-millionth the mass of the Saturnian rings. If you could pull together all of the material in Saturn's rings, you'd have enough to create an icy moon more than a hundred miles in diameter; the other planets' halos may contain less mass than a modest mountain. Earth's moon, by comparison, is more than 2,000 miles in diameter.
It's relatively easy for scientists to envision how, say, Jupiter's small, rocky rings could have been created by meteorites crashing into the planet's moons. But it's much tougher for them to explain the origins of Saturn's vast and much icier rings. According to a new theory, the unique attributes of Saturn's rings may be evidence of an awesomely violent birth.
In a paper last month in the journal Nature, astrophysicist Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute suggested that Saturn's rings are vestiges of a moon - larger than Earth's moon - that got overwhelmed by Saturn's gravitational pull during the planet's formation. Her computer simulations suggest that such a moon, made of frozen water surrounding a rocky core, would have shed the water as its core fell into the planet. Its remains would have formed a massive ring around Saturn, only parts of which survive. The rest of the icy material either coalesced into some of the smaller moons that now orbit Saturn or drifted off into space.