The Planet Saturn
Discounting Earth, Saturn is arguably the most beautiful planet in our solar system, and definitely the most ringed. Saturn stands out like a golden beacon against the encroaching darkness. This wondrous planet and her unique qualities are explored on this page. Enjoy learning about the stunning planet Saturn.
Enchanting Saturn and her Rings
Some Basic Facts About the Planet Saturn
Saturn is the 6th planet from the Sun and the 2nd largest planet in our Solar System. Saturn is classified as a gas giant because of its size and composition. The exterior of Saturn is composed of hydrogen, a small amount of helium, and a few trace elements, while the interior is rock and ice. Saturn is also sometimes called one of the Jovian planets, after Jupiter. Saturn has extremely high winds that can reach up to 1800 km/h or 1118.47 mph, faster than those found on Jupiter. Saturn has over 60 moons, and the exact number is difficult to determine because the planet has so many small moon-like objects in orbit around it, and it's difficult for scientists to put a limit on size. Titan is Saturn's largest moon, the only moon with a significant atmosphere, and the second largest in our solar system. Saturn has an oblate shape, meaning it has somewhat flat poles and bulges in the middle.
Saturn is so big, you could fit 763.59 Earths inside it, and so buoyant that if you could find a body of water large enough, Saturn would float. It takes 10,759 Earth days (or about 29Â½ years) for Saturn to make one revolution around the Sun.
The NASA image above was taken by the Cassini spacecraft.
Great video about Saturn, her moons, and rings - Narrated by Patrick Stewart
Scientists believe Saturn has a dense rocky core, a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen, a layer of liquid helium and hydrogen, and a vast exterior of hydrogen, helium, and trace elements like ammonia, acetylene, ethane, phosphine, and methane. Saturn's interior is extremely hot and it radiates more energy than it receives from the Sun.
Saturn has clouds made of ammonia crystals, with lower lying clouds that may be made of ammonium hydrosulfide or water.
The NASA image above was taken by the Cassini spacecraft and shows the thin line of the rings casting the large shadows on Saturn's surface. The tiny dot on the rings is Saturn's moon, Enceladus.
NASA image of Saturn's Lightning Storm taken by Cassini
Saturn's Storms and Auroras
Saturn has some of the unique features seen on Jupiter, like great storms and auroras. In 1990, Hubble showed a large white cloud near the equator of Saturn. Scientists say the storm is an example of the Great White Spot, and is a unique storm that appears only once every Saturnian year (or about every 29 1/2 Earth years). If the pattern continues, another large storm should appear in 2020. Saturn's storms produce a vast amount of lightning as pictured in the Cassini spacecraft image above. Saturn also has been host to hurricane-like storms with a clear eyewall, as was observed by Cassini in 2006. What makes this unique is the fact that this was the first time an eyewall cloud has been observed on a planet other than Earth.
Another phenomenon on Saturn is the Aurora. The image to the left of Saturn's polar aurora were taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on January 24, 26, and 28. The auroras on Saturn are different than those seen on Jupiter and Earth. They do share some similarities though. For instance, they vary from day to day, and can lay still while the planet rotates beneath, like on Earth, but unlike those on Earth, the auroras can last for days, while on Earth they last mere minutes, and they can also rotate along with Saturn, like the ones on Jupiter, while Earth's are always stationary. Saturn's auroras are also much more affected by the Sun's magnetic field and solar winds, and not as much by the direction of the solar wind's magnetic field. Another difference between the auroras on Saturn and those on Jupiter and Earth is that when Saturn's auroras grow brighter and more powerful, they shrink in size. The auroras also become brighter on the day-night boundary, which is also the time that magnetic storms on Saturn intensifies.
The NASA image of the Aurora above was taken by the Cassini spacecraft using different wavelengths of infrared light. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Saturn's North Polar Hexagonal Cloud /Credit: NASA
Saturn's Hexagonal Phenomenon
In 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched towards Saturn and Jupiter, and are currently far past Pluto. What is significant about these two spacecraft is that they observed a strange hexagonal cloud formation on Saturn's North polar region more than two decades ago. The Cassini spacecraft has also sent images of the same hexagonal formation, meaning that this unique phenomenon has been active for at least 27 years to date, and probably much, much longer. While the southern polar region of Saturn show the presence of a jet stream, and a hurricane-like eyewall was discovered in November 2006, the northen polar region shows this hexagonal wave pattern.
The straight sides of the hexagon are fairly equal, with each being about 13,800 km long (8574 miles), the hexagon itself is about 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) across, is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) below the cloud tops with a system of clouds within the formation, and makes one rotation in approximately 10.5 hours. It is hypothesized that Saturn's interior also rotates at the same speed as the hexagonal cloud formation.
Scientists are puzzled by the hexagonal clouds origin and pattern. Some believe it to be an unusual wave pattern brought about by Saturn's radio emissions, while others think it may be a unique form of an aurora, especially since Saturn's actual aurora appears over the hexagonal clouds. However, since the norther polar region of Saturn is slowly coming out of a 15 year winter, better images and data are being gathered by Hubble and Cassini, and many scientists now believe it is linked to neither Saturn's radio emissions nor its aurora.
The Mystery Hexagon on SATURN
Looking at Earth Through Saturn's Rings
The Rings of Saturn
Definitely the most ethereal object in our solar system is that of Saturn's rings. One may think that the photo above is some computer generated image by a fantasy artist, but it is an actual image taken by the Cassini spacecraft while on the other side of Saturn looking towards the Earth, and yes, that is actually the Earth and not a super-imposed image of it.
There are several theories as to the formation of the rings. One theory is that the rings were once part of a moon that moved too close to Saturn and was ripped apart by tidal forces, another is that a moon of Saturn was struck by a large comet or asteroid, which shattered the moon into bits. Another theory is the the rings are left over bits of material that formed Saturn.
With data gathered from the Voyager spacecrafts, and later, the Cassini spacecraft, it has been discovered that the rings of Saturn have their own atmosphere, separate from that of Saturn. The gravitational pull of the many moons of Saturn also have an effect on the rings, causing some of the rings to be intricate in nature. Saturn's rings also have unusual "spokes" running across some of the rings. The spokes are thought to be microscopic dust particles that are electrically charged, and that electromagnetic forces are at work here, but the exact reason is unknown. The spokes seem to be seasonal and appear only when the planet nears its equinox. The NASA Voyager image above taken in 1981, shows the spokes that run across the rings, represented by the dark colorations, as well as large bits debris and ice orbiting Saturn along with the rings.
Saturn has an indeterminate number of moons because it has many small objects in orbit, and it is difficult to tell which should be categorized as a moon. Some of these moons are less than 6 miles in diameter. Saturn's largest moon is Titan and is the only moon in the solar system to have a dense atmosphere, and Saturn's second largest moon Rhea, may also have a delicate ring system. Saturn's moons Titan and Rhea are discussed in detail along with Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, and Enceladus
on the Major Moons of Saturn.