Saturn Facts

Saturn is the sixth and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. It is a beautiful planet with majestic rings around it. Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturn Profile

Interesting Saturn Facts

  • It is the sixth planet of the solar system.
  • Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture.
  • It is the second-largest planet in the solar system.
  • Saturn has formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
  • Saturn is 1.43 billion kilometers away from the sun. 
  • The radius of Saturn is 58,232 kilometers. 
  • Saturn is 95 times larger than the Earth in terms of volume.
  • Saturn is known for its large ring system.
  • Saturn has at least 150 moons. Out of these, over 60 have been confirmed and 53 have been officially named.
  • Saturn is the least dense planet in the solar system.
  • Saturn takes 10 hours and 42 minutes to rotate.
  • It takes 29.5 years for Saturn to revolve around the sun once.
  • Saturn is the root word for the word Saturday.
  • Saturn is the farthest planet from the Earth that is visible to the naked eye.
  • 780 Earth’s can fit inside Saturn.
  • Saturn has been visited by 5 spacecrafts.
  • Sometimes, Saturn is also called the ‘Jewel of the Solar System‘ because of the beautiful appearance given to it by its rings. 
  • Saturn is also quite often called the ‘ringed planet’ reasons being obvious.
  • Saturn has a magnetic field, but it is weaker than that of the Earth. 
  • Both Jupiter and Saturn combined will constitute 92% of the total mass of all the planets in the solar system.

History

Saturn has been named after the Roman god of agriculture. Humans have known about Saturn since pre-historic times. It was first observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610.  However, the time of discovery of the planet is unknown.

Galileo’s observations made it clear that Saturn had rings. Galileo initially thought that the ‘rings’ were actually moons of Saturn. Christiaan Huygens was the first one to give the term ‘rings’ to the planet.  He also discovered Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Appearance

Saturn is the most distinguishable planet in the solar system. This is because of its extraordinary system of rings. Saturn has the largest system of rings in the solar system. Saturn is usually seen as multi-colored. However, from space, it is yellowish-brown or butterscotch in color.

Size

Saturn is the second-largest planet in the solar system after Jupiter. The mass of Saturn is close to 5.6834×1026 kg. It is known to have at least 150 moons. Officially, ut has 82 moons. 53 moons have been confirmed and named. Twenty-nine moons need to be confirmed and named.

Surface

Just like the gas giant Jupiter, Saturn lacks a well-defined surface. As the term ‘gas-giant’ suggests, Saturn is mostly made up of gases and liquids. The surface area of Saturn is 42.7 billion km².

Composition

Saturn is a gas giant. Its main constituents are hydrogen and helium. It is composed of nearly 96% hydrogen and 3.25% helium with very few amounts of methane and ammonia and just like Jupiter, lacks a definite surface.

Despite being a gas giant, scientists believe that the planet could have a rocky core. It is however not known for certain. It is the least dense of all the planets in the solar system. In fact, it is the only planet in the solar system that is less dense than water.

The temperature of the planet is known to be as low as -270° C. The wind speeds on the planet are as high as 1,770 kilometers per hour. 

Magnetic field & Gravitational Forces

Saturn is known to have an internal magnetic field. It is created due to the circulation of liquid metallic hydrogen in its core. The magnetic field of Saturn is a dipole, just like the Earth. However, unlike the Earth, the poles are reversed. This means that if we hold a compass in the magnetic field of Saturn, the needle will point towards the south.

Orbit & Rotation

It takes close to 10 hours and 40 minutes to complete one rotation making it the second-fastest planet after Jupiter and approximately twenty-nine and a half years to complete one revolution making it one of the slowest revolving planets in the solar system. Saturn has a mean radius of 58,232 km.

Atmosphere

Saturn mainly consists of hydrogen and helium with some small proportions of compounds like methane, ammonia, and water. This water is in the solid form i.e. in the form of ice. This planet’s atmosphere contains significant amounts of sulphur, nitrogen, and oxygen. Sulphur is responsible for giving the planet its yellowish appearance.

Saturn’s atmosphere is quite similar to that of Jupiter. There are many layers of clouds present in the atmosphere of the planet. Saturn has a banded pattern of clouds just like Jupiter. However, these bands are very faint as compared to those of Jupiter which are quite prominent.

Saturn’s winds are the second-fastest winds in all of the solar system after those of Neptune. These winds or the storms that they cause only last for a few months before being absorbed into the atmosphere.

The temperature and pressure on the planet increase as one goes closer to its center. Enormous thunderstorms occur on Saturn every year on Saturn i.e. about every three decades on Earth. These storms are called the ‘Great White Spots’. They usually occur in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Moons

Saturn has more than a hundred moons. Only 82 of these have been confirmed. Out of these 62, only 53 have been officially named. The moons of Saturn vary greatly in size and shape. Only about 13 of the moons of the planet have diameters of more than 50 km. Some moons also have rings of their own.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon. It is also the second-largest moon in the solar system after Ganymede which is a moon of Jupiter. Titan has an atmosphere similar to that of the Earth it is rich in nitrogen. It also has a landscape of dry river networks. It is the only celestial body known, besides the Earth, to have liquid collect on its surface. It is believed that Titan has an ocean and several enormous lakes on its surface.

Another notable moon of Saturn is Enceladus. It has features similar to comets. It may also have liquid water on its poles and an ocean below its surface. Saturn has only 24 regular satellites. All the seven main satellites of Saturn are regular. The planet also has 38 irregular satellites.

Titan was the first of Saturn’s moons to be discovered. It was discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655. Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered four more moons of Saturn between 1671 and 1684 which is a period of 13 years. These moons were Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Lapetus.

In 1789, William Herschel discovered two more moons which were Mimas and Enceladus. In 1848, W.C. Bond, G.P. Bond, and William Lassell discovered Hyperion. In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA’s Voyager and Pioneer flew by Saturn and its moons. However, detailed observations of the moons of the planet were provided by NASA’s Cassini. Cassini also discovered many moons that were previously unknown. 

Rings of Saturn

All four gas giants have rings. However, Saturn’s rings are the most prominent and the most beautiful. They are also the only ones that can be seen by the human eye. Saturn contains a set of seven group pf rings which have spaces between each other.

The seven main rings are alphabetically named as A, B, C, D, E, F, and G in the order of their discovery. In order of their distance from the planet (closest to farthest), these rings can be arranged as D, C, B, A, F, G, and E. A gap of 4,700 kilometers called the Cassini division separates the A and B rings.

These rings are composed of rocks and bits of ice. The largest of these rings spreads for as far as 200 times the diameter of the planet. Christiaan Huygens was the first person to term them as rings. The main rings are at least 7000 kilometers away from the surface of the planet.

These rings are extremely thin with a thickness of not more than 30 feet or 10 meters. The rings of Saturn are considered to be as old as Saturn itself. Some theories suggest that the rings are a part of a moon of Saturn whose orbit was decayed, and the pieces ripped apart by tidal or gravitational forces or by being struck by an asteroid, a comet or some other celestial body.

Exploration

Saturn or rather the Saturn system has been visited by only four spacecraft’s, three of which were flybys. Cassini-Huygens popularly known as Cassini was a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. It was the only one to actually orbit the planet. It orbited around Saturn for more than 10 years.

In 1979, Pioneer 11 became the first spacecraft to visit Saturn. It stayed well above the clouds of the planet and provided images that were low on the resolution. The spacecraft discovered and studied the F ring.

Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to send high-resolution images of the planet, its rings, and its satellites. It provided significant details about the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Voyager 2 provided more photographs of the planet and its moons. The probes also visited many new satellites of the planet which orbited near the planet’s rings and also within them. NASA’s Cassini became the first-ever spacecraft to orbit around the planet Saturn. It studied the planet extensively. It flew by the satellites Phoebe. It also conducted two flybys of Titan.

Cassini also released a probe called Huygens on the surface of Titan in 2005. Several flybys of other icy moons were also conducted. In 2006, water reservoirs were found on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

In 2009, four new moons were discovered and confirmed by Cassini. Several other missions like the Titan Saturn System Mission or the TSSM was proposed by NASA and ESA as a joint mission. Its purpose is to explore Saturn and its moons most extensively Titan and Enceladus to further investigate the observations given by Cassini.

The launch date of the mission is however not yet confirmed. Other proposed missions are Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET), Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), DLR: Enceladus Explorer (EnEx), Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), the JBL: Life Investigation for Enceladus (LIFE), etc.

Cassini-Huygens
Cassini-Huygens

Potential for Life in Saturn

No human being has ever visited Saturn. Also, no evidence of life has been found on the planet. As Saturn is a gas giant and just like Jupiter, lacks a definite surface, it is less likely that Saturn can support life.

However, three of Saturn’s many moons may satisfy the conditions to support life. Some state of water has been found on Titan, Enceladus, and Dione. 

Saturn in Pop Culture

Saturn has been a huge part of the old and new popular culture mainly because of its unique appearance and mysterious nature.  It is often regarded as one of the most iconic planets of the solar system.

It has provided a backdrop for many science fiction stories, movies, and TV shows. Some of them are Cthulhu Mythos, Star Trek, Final Fantasy VII, WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dead Space 2, Beetlejuice, Interstellar, etc. The day Saturday is also named after Saturn.

Timeline

  1. 700 BC: Oldest known records about Saturn.
  2. 400 BC: The planet was named ‘Kronos’ by the ancient Greeks. The Romans named it ‘Saturn’. Kronos and Saturn are the Greek and Roman gods of agriculture respectively.
  3. 1610: Saturn’s rings are seen by Galileo who mistakes them for moons or other planets.
  4. 1656: Titan, Saturn’s largest moon is discovered by Christiaan Huygens.
  5. 1675: Cassini discovers the gap between the rings that are now called A and B rings.
  6. 1979: Pioneer 11 becomes the first spacecraft to visit Saturn and make new discoveries like new moons and the F ring.
  7. 2004: NASA’s Cassini becomes the first spacecraft to orbit around Saturn.
  8. 2005: The European Space Agency’s Huygens becomes the first spacecraft to land on Saturn.
  9. 2006: New ring of Saturn is discovered by NASA.
  10. 2017: NASA’s 13 year-long mission ends with Cassini.

References

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