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Episode 70: The Ringmakers of Saturn

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Recap: The Ringmakers of Saturn by Norman R. Berbrun makes a premise, claimed to be consistent with all other research on Saturn's rings, that the rings are created by the exhaust of gigantic space vehicles. He determined this through analyzing blow-ups of photographs returned to Earth by the Voyager spacecraft.

Answer to Puzzler from Episode 69: The density in the core of the sun where fusion takes place is so great that when photons are produced in P-P chain or CNO cycle fusion reactions, the mean free path before the photon hits, and is absorbed by, another atomic nucleus, is very short. Much shorter than the typical spacing between atomic nuclei at room temperature and pressure.

This nucleus then re-emits a photon (or often two or more photons at lower energies, which is why the sun, at its surface, emits a thermal spectrum, and not just the high energy gamma rays that are initially produced in the core). But the photon(s) are re-emitted in random directions. They are almost as likely to be re-emitted back in the direction of the core as they are to head towards the surface. This cycle of absorption and re-emission at random directions continues trillions of times. (The photons also experience Compton (and inverse-Compton) scattering, which has a similar randomising effect on the paths of the photons.) The further the photons get from the core, the more the density drops, and the mean free path increases, so photons travel larger distances between collisions. A photon travelling inwards will travel a slightly shorter distance between collisions than a photon travelling outwards, so they will tend, over time, to make their way towards the surface.

Puzzler for Episode 70: Something I found absolutely amazing - and still do - is that Saturn's rings are tens of thousands of kilometers across, but they are, literally, only about 10 meters thick. Why are they so thin relative to their horizontal extent?

Q&A: This episode's question comes from Justin N. from Canada who asks: "Do the planets in any given system slowly move away from their sun? Or do they move closer? I understand the moon slowly moves away from us. Will that continue forever or will it find a point where its pull and the earths pull balance out and stay together?"

To address this question, you first have to know why planets orbit where they do, or at least why they do today. It has to do with energy.

Our moon right now orbits a certain distance from Earth, and it has a certain energy that corresponds to that orbit. If there were no energy coming into its orbit and no energy leaving, it would stay that distance from Earth until something drastic changed.

But, the moon DOES have energy that is fed into its orbit, and that energy comes from Earth. As the moon orbits, Earth bulges a little bit because of the difference in gravitational pull from one side to the other. Tides.

That bulge is a little bit AHEAD of the Moon's orbit. What that means is that the moon effectively gets pulled forward in its orbit by Earth's tidal bulge a teeny bit at a time. This slowly gives it more energy and raises it to a higher orbit above the planet. The energy loss from Earth is very very slowly slowing down its spin rate, making the day longer. This process will continue until the tidal bulge lines up with the Moon, at which point Earth will have slowed so that the same side always faces the Moon just as the same side of the Moon always faces Earth. Various estimates I've seen put this as happening in around a billion years or two.

The opposite case happens with Phobos around Mars. The tidal bulge is BEHIND Phobos, slowing it down and lowering its orbit, so eventually it'll break up and crash into Mars.

The same can happen with planets if you have a way of adding or removing energy from their orbits. A way to do this in the very early solar system, while things are still forming, is by gas drag: Literally a friction as the planet plows through the nebula it formed from. They lose energy from the drag and can drift closer to their parent star.

Another way to affect an orbit is for the object it's orbiting to gain or lose mass. This usually doesn't happen until the very end stage of a star's life. Models show that when the sun, in around 5 billion years, goes through its red giant phase and grows really big and loses a bunch of mass, while it may be as big as Earth's present-day orbit, Earth should migrate outwards because the Sun has lost mass.

This is why when people ask if Earth is going to be enveloped by the Sun when it goes red giant, the answer is that it's complicated and no one really knows.

Additional Materials:


Claim: This is a claim put forward by Norman R. Bergrun in his book by the same name, that Saturn's rings are basically made by ginormous space vehicles as their exhaust.

I'll pause there and let it sink in. And now I'll quote from the preface of his book so you can hear it in his own words: "Presented herein are pictures of immensely large, enormously powerful extraterrestrial space vehicles located in the vicinity of Saturn and its moons."

With most topics I talk about on this show, there's usually some shred of potential sanity. This is not one of those topics. I even posted about this on the facebook page asking people whether it was worth talking about due to the severe departure from reality of this topic. But, I am going to go through this a little -- just like I did with José Escamilla's film, "Celestial," and then talk somewhat about what's worth talking about.

Alright, so let's get into this ...

Claimed Evidence

When one hears a claim like this, if one doesn't dismiss it right away, then the very first thing one should ask for is their evidence. After all, without evidence, then their claim is meaningless. It's the same as me saying right now that the sun is powered by a magical flatulating dragon. Now prove me wrong!

Bergrun does at least oblige us in that respect.

The evidence is that he looked at photographs returned of Saturn by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft from the very early 1980s. He saw differences in the photographs from one mission to the next, and since they were only 9 months apart, he realized that something must be changing them.

Bergrun then did something that I've addressed before on this podcast when discussing why you need to be cautious about image analysis: His technique was to take photographs that were released by NASA, so ones in the public domain, put those pictures underneath a microscope, put a flood lamp behind them, and then take photos of the microscope images and analyze them. When he did this, part of Saturn's A ring disappeared!

Going further, he used the Cassini division as a unit of length, and he discovered that the A ring was "too short radially" by a factor of two. When doing that analysis, he saw a cylindrical object below the A ring, and it appeared to be spewing emissions, and those emissions were making the rings!

A Step Back: Structure of the Rings

I've thrown a lot at you there and I can imagine that some of you are shaking your heads. Others of you are probably wondering what this A ring and Cassini division are, so let's take a step back.

The study of Saturn's rings has an over 400-year history, and we now know that they are very thin but very wide disks of orbiting material. What you see in a telescope in your backyard is the B and A ring. The B ring is closer to Saturn and it is separated from the A ring by a gap. Since Cassini was the first person to be able to see this gap, it's named after him.

Over the years, other rings have been found, such as the C and D rings interior to the B ring, and the E and F ring and Phoebe ring outside of the A ring.

The rings are GENERALLY, as a WHOLE, dynamically stable, meaning that they don't really change from one moment to the next as a whole. But close-up, they have a lot of structure, and they DO change significantly.

Doing simulations of Saturn's rings was my first real main project as a graduate student, before I started to work on Mars craters. And I'll be doing them again -- in fact I'm running some simulations now as I record this -- for some work over the next year or so, so this is something I know a fair bit about.

The results from the Voyager mission suggested a model where material in the B ring was kinda like granola bars: There were long clumps of particle separated by gaps, and this was on the 10s of meters scale -- much too small to actually see with the cameras at the time, but something you could tell by very carefully measuring light from stars that pass behind them.

Cassini and my simulations - which is my most-cited paper at the moment - showed that the granola bar model is a bit wrong, and it's more complicated. In the B ring, the structure looks more like a netting with very long clumps and thinner tendrils of material linking them, and then bits of other particles scattered around.

As you go out from Saturn, such as to the A ring, since you're farther away from the planet, particles can clump together more easily because Saturn isn't able to tear them apart as much. So you have instead of a netting, more like a free-form webbing with larger groups of particles able to come together in clusters a few 10s of meters across, get disrupted, and re-form on periods of about one orbit around the planet.

Add onto that Saturn's moons. The moons act to perturb the rings, and they're responsible for making the many divisions that are in them, such as the Cassini division. They're also responsible for perturbing the rings, making the edges a bit dynamic and wavy, kinda like an old vinyl record. Those of you under 25, ask your parents what that is. I promise you it won't make them feel old.

Alright. So, stepping back for a mid-episode summary, we have Saturn's rings which are, on a large scale, dynamically stable and on scales of 10s of kilometers look the same today the way they did 400 years ago. The system is governed by basic dynamics and "kept in line" by lots of moons. On a scale of 1 km or less, the system changes constantly and isn't solid, but is made of innumerable particles that we think average about 1 meter across, and form lots of structures based on the constant interplay between their own self-gravity, their motion around Saturn, and Saturn and the moons trying to pull them apart.

Back to the Ringmakers

Back to the Ringmakers of Saturn. So what Bergrun is saying is that when he took pictures he clipped out of things like magazines and newspapers, put them under a microscope, took pictures through the microscope, and analyzed those, he found anomalies.

I just found myself nodding my head unconsciously while saying that -- of COURSE you're going to find anomalies: You're using copies of copies, you're using a microscope that may not have been cleaned, you're using a light that likely does not provide even illumination, you're using a camera that has its own imperfections, and since this was done before digital cameras, you're using film that also has its own issues.

I have a PDF of his book, and I'll be posting it on the podcast website. I strongly recommend downloading it and taking a look at the photos within it that show his evidence.

For example, I'm looking at the one at the bottom of his labeled page 17 right now. Kids, follow along at home. He's showing the B ring, Cassini Division, and A ring. To the left side of the photo, he has what he's labeled a "Luminous Source" that is within the Cassini Division. Unfortunately, he does not tell us what photo this is, so we can't go check to see if it's in any other version of the photo, nor can we check to see if it's something like a star. So I'll agree that's an anomaly -- but it is just that, an anomaly.

In the lower right of the photo, he shows what appears to me to be film grain and a very slightly bled film emulsion. The film grain is kinda like pixel noise -- it really looks like the equivalent of one or two brighter pixels, just like many others around it, but these are the only ones that he has labeled as "Exhaust" on one side, and "Body" on the other. Again pointing to more unevenly illuminated film grains between them, he calls these "streamers."

Finally, at the bottom of the image on the right, he points to another object he's labeled as "light source." The problem is that it is clearly BELOW the frame of the image since the rings are truncated above it, and to me this "light source" looks like a speck of dust that got in there, much like numerous other tiny light sources throughout the image.

The rest of the book is just like this. In one photo, Plate 30 on page 55, he points to cloud features in Saturn's atmosphere and says that this is a massive electromagnetic vehicle. This gets to his larger point, he claims that these are gigantic vehicles that may be nuclear or "beyond nuclear" propulsion, maybe plasma. Since he claims they have electromagnetic properties, he calls them "EMVs," and that they may be biological and they look similar to close-ups of HIV "in some cases."

I could go on, such as he claims that the rings are a parking lot and Saturn is the garage, that when he examines Apollo photographs, all of the people and vehicles are replicas of the original by the same aliens making the rings, and so on, but I think I've milked this about as much as it's worth doing.

When you get right down to it, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of image analysis mixed in with some paranoia and other conspiracy ideas. He admits, "It's been hard for people to wrap their mind around it ... or accept it." But, he still makes this claim: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, August 30, 2004, Hour 1, starting at 9:31]

"Really, it's not a theory, when you get right down to it, you finally come up with a conclusion as a matter of fact."

Skepticism, Fair Game, and What's Worth Discussing

Backing off this, I don't really have a desire to make fun of people who might be mentally ill. I have a respect for mental health and especially the stigma that goes along with any admission of a - to use the legal term I hear on Law & Order - "mental disease or defect." So I don't want anyone to think I did this topic for that reason.

Rather, when I started my blog and later this podcast, one reason was that I was interested in this stuff and liked to argue with people who were crazy. And I thought others might like to hear me argue.

Another reason is that there typically ARE some people who believe even the most outlandish-seeming idea. I mean, like, that you can put a candle up to your ear, melt it, and it will pull out the wax. Or that water is magic and has memory and cures you. Or, according to a poll of 1247 adults that was released on April 3 of this year, up to 13% of Americans either think that, or aren't sure if, shape-shifting reptilians rule the world.

To you or I, it might seem crazy. I mean, Richard Hoagland told around 10 million people on the night of December 21, 2012, that the fact that nothing happened was proof that HAARP stabilized the world, preventing it from tipping over, by interacting with pyramids and super-special physics only he understands and proved with his watch.

But some people believe it.

And, even if you don't believe it, you may not know why. You may just say that it doesn't pass the "smell test" and move on from there.

That's the other reason I do this: By using examples of people's crazy ideas, and delving into them to figure out what's really going on, you learn something in the process. For example, this Friday I'll be reprising my Apollo Moon Hoax talk at the Colorado School of Mines.

One claim I talk about is how the astronauts knew how to focus the camera without being able to see through a non-existent viewfinder. In exploring that claim, I talk about how camera apertures work, how they vary the amount of light that is let into the camera, but how they also affect how much depth is in focus. If I were to stand up and talk about the mechanics of how cameras and optical systems work, that would be much more boring and someone likely won't remember it an hour later. But, by linking it to how it was possible for astronauts to take in-focus photographs on the Moon, I not only show why one hoax claim is wrong, but I also get to teach some optics that people are more likely to remember later on. It's like a nemonic.

That's why I think this topic was worth at least briefly talking about. Yes, it's probably one of the most outlandish ideas I've addressed in the last 70 episodes. But in going through it, we talked about image analysis, artifacts, common sense, and how the ring system really works.

You may disagree. You may agree. I'm interested in hearing from you if you have strong feelings either way.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Stuart Robbins   Lyons, CO, USA

3:31pm on Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment. Almost this entire post is about investigating Dr. Brandeburg's claims and examining the evidence for them. If you would like to dispute that evidence or present new evidence that I did not find, please do so.

D'artagnan Bingemunkle   Mars, 2147

9:56am on Thursday, January 16th, 2014 

It's very easy to doubt outlandish hypotheses, and equally easy to believe everything we're told by our rulers. Without being insulting, I imagine Bergrun is many times the scientist/engineer you are, as he worked at the very top of the game for a variety of concerns, and I think his opinion is worth looking at.

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