We’re so used to the presence of that greyish-white orb hanging up in the sky that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything else seated in that prime position. Just imagine, what would it be like if you looked up in the night sky and, instead of the Moon, you saw a purple triangle or a green hexagon?
Or maybe even… a ring?
Well, this might surprise you, but at one point in the development of our planet…
Earth had a ring too!
Crazy as that may sound, billions of years ago, Earth did have a ring! Scientists believe that this unusual ring first appeared during the formation of the Moon. It is surmised that a really long time ago, a planet named Thea collided with Earth, and as a result of this collision of two celestial bodies, a large amount of debris was thrown out into the space.
This debris then settled in an orbit around Earth, forming a temporary ring around our planet. This ring (made from the left-overs of the collision) gradually came together in a huge chunk of mass to become the Moon we see today hanging in the night sky.
What if there were rings around Earth?
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Earth also had rings like Saturn. First off, the rings would look quite different from Saturn’s rings. You see, Saturn’s rings are not made of single, stand-alone discs. In fact, they are a collection of ice and dust particles orbiting tightly around the planet. However, things out there (around Saturn’s position) are quite cold, because they’re so far away from the Sun. Therefore, Saturn’s rings cannot be transposed on Earth as they are, as the Sun’s rays would burn them up, and they would disappear in no time.
We could, however, have a ring made of rock. It wouldn’t be as shiny as Saturn’s icy disc, but it sure would last longer against the Sun’s rays. So, Earth has a ring. Now what?
Appearance of the ring
The first question that comes to mind is how such a ring would look to an Earth-bound individual. More importantly, would it even be visible in the first place?
Yes, a ring around Earth would be clearly visible. It’s highly likely that such a ring would run parallel to the Equator; therefore, its appearance would depend on your location on Earth. For instance, for a person standing in a place near the Equator (the Equator passes through a number of countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Colombia etc.), it would look like a shiny line arcing from horizon to horizon.
If you moved away from the Equator, the rings would start to spread out across the sky. At a certain vantage point away from the Equator, the rings would appear rather close to the horizon, making for a spectacular visual.
Effect on the natural lighting of Earth
The Moon is a solid structure made of rocky materials, which aren’t the ideal choice for the reflection of light. Still, the Moon appears so bright and well-lit at night, thanks to the powerful sunshine that it reflects onto Earth. Rings would also reflect sunlight in the same manner, but the effects would be much more pronounced.
The combined effect of both the Moon and rings’ reflection of sunlight would be such that the amount of ambient light during the daytime would sky-rocket, whereas the night sky would never be as absolutely black as it presently is. This scenario would also make the life of astronomers and star-gazers particularly difficult, as stars wouldn’t be as clearly visible.
On the other extreme, rings around Earth would seriously impact the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by blocking some of it. Therefore, during summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the rings’ shadows would be cast on the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s winter). This would block some of the much-needed warmth of the Sun, leading to colder winters in both hemispheres.
All in all, Saturn-like rings might make our Earth look slightly prettier than it does now, but looking at the potential downsides that they would entail, I’m immensely pleased that the cosmos haven’t ‘put a ring on it’.