What Idaho’s Sky Would Look Like If Earth Had Saturn's Rings

Nov 21, 2013

Look south and imagine the bottom-tenth of the sky blocked by a striped arch like a colossal wall on the horizon. That’s what it would look like from Idaho if Earth had rings like the planet Saturn.

Earlier this week, we heard from physicist Matthew Hedmen with the University of Idaho. Hedman studies Saturn’s rings and works with NASA’s Cassini space mission which recently released an image of Saturn that’s getting a lot of attention.

I couldn’t resist taking a little rocket flight-of-fancy and asking Hedman what it would be like if Earth had rings. He says it’s debatable if that would be possible, but he was glad to play along.

Noted science and science fiction artist Ron Miller did several works imagining Earth with Saturn-like rings which went viral a few years ago. At 38 degrees latitude Washington DC would see a bit more of the rings than Boise would at 43 degrees.
Credit Ron Miller

Bright Nights

The first change Hedman lists is a night that doesn’t get completely dark.

“You know how bright it can be when there’s a full moon out,” Hedman says. “Imagine what it would be if like 10 percent of your sky was filled with material that’s all reflecting sunlight.”

The moon though, has a constantly changing cycle as it orbits the earth. Its apparent size and brightness change and sometimes it's visible in the night's sky and sometimes it's not.

“[But] the rings would be constantly up giving you a nice source of light during the night,” he says.

There are of course drawbacks to that. For example, we might never see the stars.

Winter’s Shadow

In south Mexico Earth's rings would appear over head rather than on the southern horizon like in Idaho.
Credit Ron Miller

At its latitude of 45 degrees (give or take a few degrees), Idaho is tilted away from the sun half the year. So if Idaho’s dark winters impact your mood now, you would definitely want to be a snow bird if Earth had rings.

“In the winter you could actually have the rings blocking the light from the sun,” Hedman says. “It would make the nights of winter even darker.”

Winter days could be darker as well, and presumably colder, in the shade from the rings.

Things Look Different In Idaho

Different spots on the globe would have a different views of the rings depending on latitude. At the equator you’d see only a bright line arching over your head and disappearing into the east and west. In Hawaii you’d see a lot of the rings and they would look something like a giant rainbow.

In Idaho you’d still see a lot of the rings, but instead of a rainbow it might look more like half of a Himalayan-sized dinner plate. In Alaska you’d just see the outer edge of the rings peeking up in the south.

This video by Roy Prol depicts an Earth with Saturn-like rings. It was a minor internet sensation when it debuted in 2009. It features some of Ron Miller's work.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio