Now that Hedman and Nicholson have succeeded in mapping six Saturn-induced ring waves, other planetary scientists will refine their models of the planet's interior. They already know Saturn consists mostly of hydrogen and helium, which surround a core of ice, rock and iron, but the core's exact weight—thought to be roughly 10 to 20 Earth masses—is unknown.
Models of Saturn carry implications beyond the solar system. "Many of the extrasolar planets we see are gas giants," Hedman says. "Jupiter and Saturn provide close-by versions of what gas-giant planets are, so if we can understand the interior structure of these guys pretty well, we should be able to better understand other giant planets too."
No one knows whether giant planets elsewhere sport beautiful rings. Astronomers can't yet discern rings around extrasolar planets, and the sun's other giant worlds—Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune—possess only faint rings. This observation raises the intriguing possibility that rings as spectacular as Saturn's could be rare in the Milky Way, which would make our solar system one of the few to boast such a stunning sight.