Saturn's rings are disappearing...according to misleading headlines
Above: Saturn as viewed through Sidewalk Science Center's Celestron NexStar 4SE telescope on September 13, 2023
by Alex Martin, Executive Director
Wednesday, November 15th, 2023
Following the release of any scientific news, there is often a media frenzy in which a dozen headlines are written that orbit the truth of the report, but never quite hit it. It's a staple of modern media. Rush to put out an article, jumping at the opportunity to gain thousands or millions of views before the initial surge of interest fades.
Such has been the case of Saturn's disappearing rings. A flurry of articles appeared shortly after astronomers began talking about the anticipated vanishing act of 2025: Saturn's rings will go missing!....
.....for about a month. Almost.
In March 2025, Earth will pass across the plane at which Saturn's rings orbit the planet, causing us to view them edge-on for about 24 days. Round 1 of the year will happen while Saturn is in our daytime sky, and sitting directly beside the Sun, making it nearly impossible to view from Earth-based telescopes.
The geometric phenomenon will occur a second time in November 2025 as the Earth once again passes across the plane of the rings' tilt. That time, the geometric sight will be visible to the masses (so make sure you visit Sidewalk Science Center to see the sight!) During these two transitions, Saturn will appear as a light tan sphere with faint white and yellow stripes, and running across the middle will be the strikingly-thin sliver of its rings seen from edge-on.
Let's go through some example headlines that are misleading on the surface:
Saturn's magnificent will disappear in 18 months - Earth.com
Saturn's rings are disappearing - photograph them while you can - PetalPixel.com
Saturn's rings will DISAPPEAR in 2025, NASA confirms - Daily Mail
Saturn's rings will vanish by 2025 but experts aren't concerned - The North Platt Telegraph
Notice the trend? Each headline twists the information, and omits a crucial detail of this event: it's temporary.
If you click on the headlines above, the articles do eventually winds their way around to telling you that the disappearance is brief, and that it happens regularly, about once every 13 to 14 years due to the uneven tilts of Earth's and Saturn's orbits around the Sun, and Saturn's rings' orbit around...well...Saturn.
While the articles allude, if only distantly, to this phenomenon as well-studied and predictable--and that the rings aren't actually disappearing anytime soon--the headlines are designed to ride tidal wave of shock-value buzz circling this news.
As we in the scientific community know, it is often the case that information spreads around our fields for years before it gets picked up in the media. Astronomy tends to be a popular field for media to dabble in: for one, anyone can go outside and see the Moon, stars, and planets. For two, the connotation of mysticism sucks us in, and we allow ourselves to pretend the stars and planets dictate our day-to-day lives. Planetary conjunctions, comets, meteor showers, and more all tend to be discussed with hyperbole and superstition, when, to the average astronomer, these events are perfectly normal. In many cases (arguably, most) we know they're happening years ahead of time.
Some examples of upcoming astronomical wonders you're hearing here first:
August 12th, 2026: total solar eclipse over Russia, North Pole, Greenland, Iceland, and Spain
September 8th, 2040: conjunction of every visible planet (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and the waxing crescent Moon just after sunset
November 4th, 2040: next conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn at 11:00am AND a partial solar eclipse from 1:22pm to 3:46pm EST
May 7th, 2049: next Transit of Mercury across the Sun that is visible from the United States
All-in-all, this should serve as a reminder that when you start hearing about planetary conjunctions, transits, eclipses, and more, many news sites will produce misleading headlines to gain clicks. When you see such a headline, visit one of your local Sidewalk Science Centers, or contact us to discuss what is actually going on. In astronomy, the truth may not be as thrilling, but it is often even more beautiful.
Alex Martin is the Executive Director of Sidewalk Science Center. He founded Sidewalk Science Center back in July 2018. Learn more about him here.