The Lord of the Rings
Saturn’s interior is probably composed of a core of iron–nickel and rock (silicon and oxygen compounds). This core is surrounded by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen, an intermediate layer of liquid hydrogen and liquid helium, and finally a gaseous outer layer. Saturn has a pale yellow hue due to ammonia crystals in its upper atmosphere. Electrical current within the metallic hydrogen layer is thought to give rise to Saturn’s planetary magnetic field, which is weaker than Earth’s, but has a magnetic moment 580 times that of Earth due to Saturn’s larger size. Saturn’s magnetic field strength is around one-twentieth of Jupiter’s. The outer atmosphere is generally bland and lacking in contrast, although long-lived features can appear. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h (1,100 mph), higher than on Jupiter, but not as high as those on Neptune.
The planet’s most famous feature is its prominent ring system that is composed mostly of ice particles, with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust. At least 62 moons are known to orbit Saturn, of which 53 are officially named. This does not include the hundreds of moonlets in the rings. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and the second-largest in the Solar System, is larger than the planet Mercury, although less massive, and is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere.
Rings of Saturn
Saturn is probably best known for the system of planetary rings that makes it visually unique. The rings extend from 6,630 km to 120,700 km outward from Saturn’s equator, average approximately 20 meters in thickness and are composed of 93% water ice with traces of tholin impurities and 7% amorphous carbon. The particles that make up the rings range in size from specks of dust up to 10 m. While the other gas giants also have ring systems, Saturn’s is the largest and most visible.
There are two main hypotheses regarding the origin of the rings. One hypothesis is that the rings are remnants of a destroyed moon of Saturn. The second hypothesis is that the rings are left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed. Some ice in the E ring comes from the moon Enceladus’ geysers.
In the past, astronomers once thought the rings formed alongside the planet when it formed billions of years ago. Instead, the age of these planetary rings is probably some hundreds of millions of years.
Layers of Saturn:
There is no surface to the giant planets, only a gradual change from the atmosphere, as shown in this drawing.
Saturn is about 97% Hydrogen gas, about 3% helium gas and about 0.05% methane, plus ammonia. Near the equator, tremendous winds blow at 1,100 mph (500 meters per second) toward the east. The clouds in the atmosphere are cold, thick and uniform in shape.
Saturn is a gaseous planet with a rocky core, a liquid metallic hydrogen layer above the core, and a molecular hydrogen layer above that. The hot, heavy, rocky core has a radius possibly three times the radius of the Earth.
Saturn has a strong magnetic field (less than Jupiter’s, but still very strong). Saturn’s magnetic field is probably generated by electrical current in conductive layers near the quickly-rotating planet’s core. Because of this strong magnetic field, there are abundant auroras on Saturn and radios emissions from it. Saturn radiates 79% more energy than it receives from the Sun, probably heat from its hot core.
The moons of Saturn are numerous and diverse, ranging from tiny moonlets less than 1 kilometer across to the enormous Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury. Saturn has 62 moons with confirmed orbits, 53 of which have names and only 13 of which have diameters larger than 50 kilometers, as well as dense rings with complex orbital motions of their own. Seven Saturnian moons are large enough to be ellipsoidal in shape, though only two of those, Titan and Rhea, are currently in hydrostatic equilibrium. Particularly notable among Saturn’s moons are Titan, the second-largest moon (after Jupiter’s Ganymede) in the Solar System, with a nitrogen-rich Earth-like atmosphere and a landscape featuring dry river networks and hydrocarbon lakes found nowhere else in the solar system; and Enceladus since its chemical composition is similar to that of comets. In particular, Enceladus emits jets of gas and dust which could indicate presence of liquid water under its south pole region and could potentially harbor a global ocean under its surface.
Mimas is a moon of Saturn which was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel. It is named after Mimas, a son of Gaia in Greek mythology, and is also designated Saturn I. With a diameter of 396 kilometres (246 mi) it is the smallest astronomical body that is known to be rounded in shape because of self-gravitation.
The surface area of Mimas is slightly less than the land area of Spain. The low density of Mimas, 1.15 g/cm3, indicates that it is composed mostly of water ice with only a small amount of rock. Due to the tidal forces acting on it, Mimas is noticeably prolate; its longest axis is about 10% longer than the shortest. The ellipsoidal shape of Mimas is especially noticeable in some recent images from the Cassini probe.
Enceladus, or Saturn 2, is the sixth-largest moon of Saturn. It is about 500 kilometers (310 mi) in diameter, about a tenth of that of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Enceladus is mostly covered by fresh, clean ice, making it one of the most reflective bodies of the Solar System. Consequently, its surface temperature at noon only reaches −198 °C (−324 °F), far colder than a light-absorbing body would be. Despite its small size, Enceladus has a wide range of surface features, ranging from old, heavily cratered regions to young, tectonically deformed terrains that formed as recently as 100 million years ago.
Enceladus was discovered on August 28, 1789, by William Herschel, but little was known about it until the two Voyager spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, passed nearby in the early 1980’s. In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft started multiple close flybys of Enceladus, revealing its surface and environment in greater detail. In particular, Cassini discovered water-rich plumes venting from the south polar region. Cryovolcanoes near the south pole shoot geyser-like jets of water vapor, molecular hydrogen, other volatiles, and solid material, including sodium chloride crystals and ice particles, into space, totaling about 200 kg (440 lb) per second. Over 100 geysers have been identified. Some of the water vapor falls back as “snow”; the rest escapes, and supplies most of the material making up Saturn’s E ring. According to NASA scientists, the plumes are similar in composition to comets. In 2014, NASA reported that Cassini found evidence for a large south polar subsurface ocean of liquid water with a thickness of around 10 km (6 mi).
Tethys (or Saturn III) is a mid-sized moon of Saturn about 1,060 km (660 mi) across. It was discovered by G. D. Cassini in 1684 and is named after the titan Tethys of Greek mythology.
Tethys has a low density of 0.98 g/cm3, the lowest of all the major moons in the Solar System, indicating that it is made of water ice with just a small fraction of rock. This is confirmed by the spectroscopy of its surface, which identified water ice as the dominant surface material. A small amount of an unidentified dark material is present as well. The surface of Tethys is very bright, being the second-brightest of the moons of Saturn after Enceladus, and neutral in color.
Dione is a moon of Saturn. It was discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1684. It is named after the Titaness Dione of Greek mythology. It is also designated Saturn IV.
Giovanni Domenico Cassini named the four moons he discovered (Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus) Sidera Lodoicea (“the stars of Louis”) to honor king Louis XIV. Cassini found Dione in 1684 using a large aerial telescope he set up on the grounds of the Paris Observatory. The satellites of Saturn were not named until 1847, when William Herschel’s son John Herschel published Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope, suggesting that the names of the Titans (sisters and brothers of Cronus) be used.
Rhea is the second-largest moon of Saturn and the ninth-largest moon in the Solar System. It is the second smallest body in the Solar System, after the asteroid and dwarf planet Ceres, for which precise measurements have confirmed a shape consistent with hydrostatic equilibrium. It was discovered in 1672 by Giovanni Domenico Cassini.
Rhea is named after the Titan Rhea of Greek mythology, the “mother of the gods”. It is also designated Saturn V (being the fifth major moon going outward from the planet). Rhea was not named until 1847, when John Herschel (son of William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, and two other moons of Saturn, Mimas and Enceladus) suggested in Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope that the names of the Titans, sisters and brothers of Cronos (Saturn, in Roman mythology), be used.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. It is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere, and the only object in space other than Earth where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found.
Titan is the sixth ellipsoidal moon from Saturn. Frequently described as a planet-like moon, Titan is 50% larger than Earth’s Moon, and it is 80% more massive. It is the second-largest moon in the Solar System, after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, and is larger than the smallest planet, Mercury, but only 40% as massive. Discovered in 1655 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, Titan was the first known moon of Saturn, and the sixth known planetary satellite (after Earth’s Moon and the four Galilean moons of Jupiter). Titan orbits Saturn at 20 Saturn radii. From Titan’s surface, Saturn subtends an arc of 5.09 degrees and would appear 11.4 times larger in the sky than the Moon from Earth.
Iapetus is the third-largest natural satellite of Saturn, eleventh-largest in the Solar System, and the largest body in the Solar System known not to be in hydrostatic equilibrium. Iapetus is best known for its dramatic “two-tone” coloration. Discoveries by the Cassini mission in 2007 revealed several other unusual features, such as a massive equatorial ridge running three-quarters of the way around the moon.
Iapetus was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, an Italian astronomer, in October 1671. He had discovered it on the western side of Saturn and tried viewing it on the eastern side some months later, but was unsuccessful. This was also the case the following year, when he was again able to observe it on the western side, but not the eastern side. Cassini finally observed Iapetus on the eastern side in 1705 with the help of an improved telescope, finding it two magnitudes dimmer on that side.
Cassini correctly surmised that Iapetus has a bright hemisphere and a dark hemisphere, and that it is tidally locked, always keeping the same face towards Saturn. This means that the bright hemisphere is visible from Earth when Iapetus is on the western side of Saturn, and that the dark hemisphere is visible when Iapetus is on the eastern side. The dark hemisphere was later named Cassini Regio in his honour.
- Saturn can be seen with the naked eye. It is the fifth brightest object in the solar system and is also easily studied through binoculars or a small telescope.
- Saturn was known to the ancients, including the Babylonians and Far Eastern observers. It is named for the Roman god Saturnus, and was known to the Greeks as Cronus.
- Saturn is the flattest planet. Its polar diameter is 90% of its equatorial diameter, this is due to its low density and fast rotation. Saturn turns on its axis once every 10 hours and 34 minutes giving it the second-shortest day of any of the solar system’s planets.
- Saturn orbits the Sun once every 29.4 Earth years. Its slow movement against the backdrop of stars earned it the nickname of “Lubadsagush” from the ancient Assyrians. The name means “oldest of the old”.
- Saturn’s upper atmosphere is divided into bands of clouds. The top layers are mostly ammonia ice. Below them, the clouds are largely water ice. Below are layers of cold hydrogen and sulfur ice mixtures.
- Saturn has oval-shaped storms similar to Jupiter’s. The region around its north pole has a hexagonal-shaped pattern of clouds. Scientists think this may be a wave pattern in the upper clouds. The planet also has a vortex over its south pole that resembles a hurricane-like storm.
- Saturn is made mostly of hydrogen. It exists in layers that get denser farther into the planet. Eventually, deep inside, the hydrogen becomes metallic. At the core lies a hot interior.
- Saturn has the most extensive rings in the solar system. The Saturnian rings are made mostly of chunks of ice and small amounts of carbonaceous dust. The rings stretch out more than 120,700 km from the planet, but are are amazingly thin: only about 20 meters thick.