Each time you look up to the sky and see a star you are looking at a sun in another galaxy. If you were on another planet looking back at our solar system, you would see our sun as a star. It’s believed that every sun has planets orbiting it. Our Milky Way galaxy has more planets than it has stars.
In our solar system we have eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are the inner rocky planets. Jupiter and Saturn are the outer gas giants. Uranus and Neptune are the outer ice giants.
In recent years, astronomers have designed a new class called the “dwarf planets.” These are smaller worlds, not quite big enough to be considered a standard planet, and include Pluto. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun, as is most well-known for its spectacular array of beautiful rings.
- Distance from Sun: 890.8 million mi
- Rings: (30 or more – in 7 groups)
- Radius: 36,184 mi
- Polar Diameter: 108,728 km
- Orbital period: 29 years
- Mass: 5.68 × 10^26 kg (95 Earths)
- Length of day: 0d 10h 42m
- Surface area: 16.49 billion mi²
- Moons: (62 including Titan, Enceladus, Iapetus & Rhea)
- First Recorded: 8th Century BCE by the Assyrians
How did Saturn get its name:
Saturn has a diameter that is the second largest in our solar system. It is the 6th planet and since Saturn and Jupiter share so much of the makeup of their atmospheres and have similar rotations, they have been listed as “relatives.” Saturn was given the name of the Roman father of the god Jupiter, who was also the god of agriculture.
It took our solar system until 4.5 billion years ago to settle into its current rotation configuration.
Gravity pulled all of the dust and swirling gas together to form the gas giant of Saturn and around 4 billion years ago it settle to the location that we see today in the outer solar system.
Saturn, like Jupiter, is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, the same two major elements that make up our sun.
Structure and Surface:
Saturn is a gas giant like Jupiter and is made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. Saturn’s central core consists of dense metals such as nickel and iron and this is surrounded by rocky materials and other compounds that are solidified due to the intense heat and pressure.
Like Jupiter’s core, there is an envelope around this area of liquid metallic hydrogen inside a layer of liquid hydrogen.
Just as with Jupiter, Saturn shares the same characteristics of a gas giant and doesn’t have a true surface.
Saturn is mostly swirling liquids and gases deeper down and any spacecraft that was sent there wouldn’t have any place to land. The pressures and temperatures on Saturn are so intense that any craft would be crushed, melted and vaporized.
If you combine Jupiter and Saturn together, they make up 92% of the entire mass of the Solar System. Saturn’s interior is incredibly hot and can reach temperatures up to 21,000 degrees F (11,700 degrees C).
Atmosphere. Magnetosphere, and Moon Status:
Saturn’s atmosphere consists of: 96% hydrogen, 4% helium, and trace amounts of acetylene, ethane, ammonia, methane, and phosphine.
There is a layer of atmosphere on Saturn that has wind speeds that are as high as 1,800 kph and are thought to be some of the solar system’s fastest known wind speeds.
Although it can’t really be seen, Saturn has a banded cloud patterns that are widest at the equator than those that are found on Jupiter. These were discovered during the Voyager missions in the 1970s. Saturn’s clouds look like striped light jet streams and even storms with brown, grey, and yellow colors.
Jupiter is known for The Great Red Spot, but Saturn’s atmosphere also has “great white spots.” These are short-lived storms that seem to appear once every full Saturn orbit and are visible thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The velocity of the winds in Saturn’s upper atmosphere around the equator can reach 1,600 feet per second/500 meters per second.
If you compare it to Earth’s strongest hurricane-force winds that are 360 feet per second/110 meters per second, you can see that Saturn is really extreme.
The pressure within the gases is so powerful that if you could be within it you would feel as if you were diving deep underwater. Saturn’s pressure is so great that it squeezes gas into a liquid form.
Although Saturn’s magnetic field is smaller than Jupiter’s, it’s still 578 times more powerful than our Earth’s.
Saturn and its rings as well as a lot of its satellites all exist within its enormous magnetosphere. Saturn’s magnetosphere is in the region of space where electrically charged particles are influenced less by solar wind and instead, controlled by Saturn’s magnetic field.
An aurorae happens when these charges particles enter the magnetic field lines in a planet’s atmosphere.
On Earth, we have charged particles hitting our magnetic field from the solar wind. However, the Cassini spacecraft showed that, like Jupiter, some of Saturn’s aurorae are unaffected by the solar wind.
Saturn’s aurorae are caused by particles that originate in its moons, ejected by the magnetic field’s fast rotation rate. Scientists are still studying what are known as “non-solar-originating” aurorae.
Saturn currently has 53 confirmed moons and an additional nine provisional moons that are waiting for confirmation.
Saturn has almost become a symbol for our solar system and is known as “The Ringed Planet.” The rings that surround Saturn are absolutely beautiful and are made of chunks of ice and dust.
The rings expand out over 12,700 km from Saturn. The rings are only around 20 meters thick.
The rings of Saturn are believed to be pieces of asteroids, comets, or even shattered moons that broke up before they hit the planet, and became smaller pieces when torn apart due to the powerful gravity of the planet.
These are billions of pieces of ice that are coated with other dust materials. The particles range in size from the tiniest granules to large pieces as big as a house; and even a few as big as mountains.
Each ring orbits around Saturn at a different speed.
The ring system around Saturn expands out to 175,000 mi/282,000 km, however, the height of the main rings vertically is only around 30 ft/10m.
Scientists have named the rings in an alphabetic order based on when they were discovered. The rings are surprisingly close to each other, with the exception of a 2,920 mi/4,700 km gap called the Cassini Division that separates Rings A and B.
The main rings around Saturn are: A, B, and C. More recently discovered are the fainter rings of D, E, F, and G.
Could Life Exist on Saturn?
Temperatures and pressures, combined with the lack of actual surface on Saturn make this planet a condition not conducive to life as we know it. Like Jupiter, everything is too extreme for organisms to adapt to and thrive.
However, scientists are looking at some of Saturn’s moons and satellites for potential life. Of great interest in Enceladus and Titan that have liquid water oceans inside.
Twice every 29 ½ years, Saturn appears to lose its rings. This is actually an optical illusion due to the fact that on Earth, we can’t see the rings of Saturn when they are edge-on.
The rings are barely visible through some of our most powerful telescopes when in standard configuration.
Saturn is the only planet within our solar system that has an average density that is less than liquid water. This means that if you had a huge bathtub filled with water that was big enough, Saturn would float in it.
One of the most unusual features exists on Saturn’s north pole. This atmospheric condition has a six-sided jet stream that creates a hexagon-shaped pattern.
This was first noted in Voyager I spacecraft images and then later observed more closely by the Cassini spacecraft. The hexagon spans around 20,000 mi/30,000 km across with a wave jet stream of 200 mph/322 kph and a huge center that rotates.
There is no weather feature like this anywhere in the known solar system.
Space Missions to Saturn:
So far, there have been four robotic spacecraft that have visited Saturn. The first look was NASA’s Pioneer 11 in 1979.
Then in 1980 and 1981, NASA sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 for flybys. Each new trip exposed wonderful details about the ringed gas giant, however, it wasn’t until 2004 with the international Cassini mission that we learned so much more.
Cassini remained in orbit for 13 years, studying Saturn. Cassini’s last mission was to plunge it into the atmosphere of Saturn in 2017 to learn as much as possible. Cassini had also carried the Huygens probe that had previously landed in 2005 on Saturn’s moon Titan.
- 700 BCE: The Assyrians are credited for documenting the oldest written records on Saturn. Their description of Saturn calls it a sparkle in the night and they named it “Star of Ninib.”
- 400 BCE: The Ancient Greeks gave the name of the planet as Kronos, to honor their god of agriculture. Later the Romans changed it to Saturn, which is their god of agriculture.
- 1610: Galileo Galilei identifies Saturn’s rings through a telescope, but thinks they are a triple planet.
- 1655: Christiaan Huygens discovers Saturn’s rings as well as its moon, Titan.
- 1675: Astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini discovers a “division” between our currently identified A and B rings.
- 1979: Pioneer 11 becomes the first spacecraft to reach Saturn and discovers the F ring as well as another moon.
- 1980 and 1981: Voyager 1 does a flyby of Saturn in 1980 and shows the structure of Saturn’s ring system which is made up of thousands of ringlets. The 1981 flyby of Voyager 2 includes a lot more detail of Saturn in images and data collected showed that some of the rings are very thin.
- 2004: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the first to be devoted to a complete orbit of Saturn and devotes ten years to the study of Saturn, its rings, and its moons.
- 2005: The ESA (European Space Agency’s) Huygens probe becomes the first to make a landing on the surface of another planet’s moon, Titan. The probe sent information on Titan’s atmosphere and images of the surface.
- 2006: Scientists discover a new ring around Saturn.
- 2009: NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope sends data that shows that there is a large, low density ring associated with Saturn’s moon Phoebe.
- 2017: Cassini’s mission in orbit ends the 13 year study by sending the spacecraft into the atmosphere of Saturn while it collected and sent back data.
Facts about Saturn for Kids:
- There are only five planets that can be seen from Earth with the naked eye, Saturn is one of them.
- Most planets are somewhat spherical in shape, but Saturn is flatter; in fact it’s the flattest of any planet in the solar system.
- When you look at Saturn is has a color that’s pale yellow. This is because its upper atmosphere contains a high quantity of ammonia crystals.
- Saturn has storms that are oval in shape and similar to those on Jupiter.
- Saturn is the one planet that has the most extensive system of rings in the entire solar system.
- A year is the amount of time a planet takes to complete its orbit around the sun. It takes Saturn 29.4 Earth years to complete the orbit.
- Saturn is made up of mostly hydrogen and is the least dense of all of the planets in the solar system.
- Earth’s magnetic field is just a little stronger than that of Saturn.
Saturn has played a role in many science fiction stories, television, movies, comics, and video games. The planet’s usual rings have made it an icon for space travel.
Some of the pop culture references include: “Cthulhu Mythos, WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Dead Space 2, and Final Fantasy VII.
Tim Burton created the movie “Beetlejuice” where a fictional Saturn is home to giant sandworms, and the 2014 movie “Interstellar,” had a wormhole near Saturn that allowed astronauts to travel to another galaxy.