The True Lord of the Rings
Meet Saturn, the colossal planet known for its stunning ring system, spanning 27 Earths in width! Saturn shares many features with its neighbor Jupiter, such as a strong magnetic field and turbulent storms in its upper gaseous atmosphere, as well as a range of moon-like satellites.
If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard telescope, you might just be able to see Saturn’s expansive rings and largest moons. The planet was named after the Roman god of agriculture and wealth, Saturn, who was also the father of Jupiter.
Saturn, pictured in natural color. The dot in the bottom left corner is Titan. Photographed by Cassini in July 2008.
Saturn is the most distant planet known to ancient observers and has the second shortest day in the solar system, with a rotation period of only 10.7 Earth hours. It takes approximately 29.5 Earth years to complete one orbit, and its average distance from the Sun is 9.5 times that of Earth.
In 1610, Galileo became the first person to observe Saturn through a telescope, but unfortunately, the low resolution of his instrument prevented him from accurately distinguishing the planet’s true ringed nature.
Saturn, like its neighbor Jupiter, is believed to have been born approximately 4.5 billion years ago, in the early stages of the Solar System’s formation. Both planets are thought to have originated closer to the Sun before migrating to their present positions around 4 billion years ago. Their gravitational influence is thought to have scattered asteroids and comets throughout the Solar System, some of which may collide with the young Earth, potentially delivering water to our planet.
A global storm girdles the planet in 2011. The storm passes around the planet, such that the storm’s head (bright area) passes its tail.
But let’s get to the fun part—Saturn’s rings! Boasting the most extensive and intricate ring system in the solar system, the rings stretch up to 175,000 miles (282,000 kilometers) from the planet. Composed primarily of water ice, the rings exhibit peculiar characteristics such as “braided” rings, ringlets, and “spokes”—dark features that revolve around the planet at varying speeds from the surrounding ring material.
Saturn’s ring particles range in size from minuscule icy grains resembling dust to colossal chunks as large as a house and are influenced by the gravitational pull of Saturn’s moons, which are aptly named “shepherd moons.”
The rings of Saturn (imaged by Cassini in 2007) are the most massive and conspicuous in the Solar System.
The origin of Saturn’s rings is attributed to two main theories—either they are leftover material from the planet’s formation, or they were created when a large moon came too close and disintegrated under immense gravitational forces. Although Saturn is slowly losing its rings, they are not disappearing at a rate we would be able to see with a telescope from Earth. As the rocks and ice within the rings move, they gradually shed pieces that are pulled toward the planet by gravity and it will take approximately 300 million years for the rings to vanish completely. Other giant planets, such as Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, have their own ring systems, but they do not match the magnificence of Saturn’s.
Saturn has a minimum of 150 moons and moonlets, with only 62 of them having confirmed orbits and just 53 having official names. Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, is a whole word itself. It’s larger than the planet Mercury and could possibly support life. On the other hand, Mimas, the smallest moon, is so tiny that it can fit within the state of Texas.
Diameter comparison of Titan, Moon, and Earth.
Saturn itself is a giant planet that is nine times wider than Earth. Its radius measures 36,183.7 miles (58,232 kilometers), which is so huge that if Earth were the size of a nickel, Saturn would be the size of a volleyball. The planet is composed of approximately 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, with trace amounts of methane and water ice. It lacks a well-defined surface, although it is suspected to have a solid core.
Size comparison of Saturn and Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Now, get this—even though Saturn takes up nearly 60% of Jupiter’s volume, its mass is only about one-third of Jupiter’s. And it has the lowest mean density of any object known in the solar system! So, Saturn is so light that it could potentially float in an ocean big enough to hold it.
In 1981, Voyagers 1 and 2 flew by Saturn and captured some awesome images. But, the real hero of Saturn exploration was the Cassini spacecraft, which spent 12 years studying the planet from 2005 to 2017. Cassini orbited Saturn more than 70 times, studying its moons, rings, and magnetic fields. As Cassini ran out of fuel, it made several close passes to take some final pictures and measurements before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. This ensured that Cassini wouldn’t contaminate any of the moons that could potentially support life, like Titan and Enceladus.
So, there you have it—some interesting facts about Saturn that vividly demonstrate the sheer awesomeness of our solar system! Saturn’s rings and many moons are just a few of its fascinating features that keep us captivated. Through the lens of this incredible planet, we are reminded of how big and beautiful the universe is and how much there is to explore.
“Saturn is the most photogenic planet in the solar system.” —Carolyn Porco
“Our solar system is fantastically bizarre. There are worlds with features we never imagined. Storms larger than planets, moons with under-surface oceans, lakes of methane, worldlets that swap places...and that’s just at Saturn.” —Phil Plait
“The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.” —Mark Russell
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