Saturn Is Probably Best Known for Its Planetary Rings
Saturn facts reveal that the planet is best known to most for its system of planetary rings, although it is not the only planet in the solar system with rings – Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune also have them.
But Saturn’s rings are far more spectacular than the rings of other planets. First of all, they are much brighter and more distinct than the rings of any other planets, and can be seen from Earth with even the most basic of telescopes. Second, they are quite large and extend from 6,600 km to almost 121,000 km above the equator of the planet, but are at the same time also amazingly thin for their size – their thickness is close to the length of a football field. For some time, they were believed to have been formed in the age of dinosaurs, but the Cassini-Huygens probe, which has been orbiting the planet and its moons since 2014, revealed that Saturn might have had its rings throughout its history.
Saturn Has More than 150 Moons and Moonlets
But Saturn facts reveal that only 53 of them have been formally named. The largest among them is called Titan and is the second largest moon in our solar system, larger even than the smallest planet, Mercury. It is also the only moon in the solar system that has a dense atmosphere. In addition, some scientists believe that life is possible (or even already exists) on Titan.
Most of Saturn’s moons are named after the Titans, ancient Greek giant deities who were brothers of the god Saturn after which the planet itself is named. Other moons are also named after giants, but giants from Inuit, French and Northern European mythologies.
Saturn’s Brown-Yellow Color is the Result of Its Upper Cloud Layers
The color of a planet is a consequence of the things it is made of and the way its surface or atmosphere reflects and absorbs sunlight. Saturn facts show that its yellow-brown color comes from its upper cloud layer, which mostly consists of ammonia crystals.
Since Saturn can be seen from Earth even with the naked eye, anybody can observe its dull yellow color, with occasional hints of orange, in detail with a small telescope. Those observers who are fortunate enough to have access to a bigger telescope, such as Hubble, are able to see Saturn’s subtle cloud layers in the form of swirling storms that mix orange and white.
Some images taken by the Cassini-Huygens space probe caused quite a stir as they showed the planet to be blue in color, but this was later explained by a special scattering of light from the space probe’s perspective.
Saturn is Almost 10 Times Larger than Earth
The second largest planet in the solar system (behind only Jupiter), Saturn has a diameter that is equal to nine times the Earth’s diameter. This may not seem like all that much, but it causes the surface of Saturn to be 84 times larger than Earth’s, and its volume to be 764 times larger than Earth’s.
A very interesting feature of Saturn is the big difference between its diameter on the equator and the poles. With an equatorial diameter of over 120,000 km and a polar diameter of less than 109,000 km, Saturn has the most distinct oblate spheroid shape among all the planets in the solar system.
Saturn Is a Pretty Cool Planet – Literally!
Although Saturn has a very hot core, Saturn facts show that the planet is actually pretty cool – not very surprising, since the planet is nearly 900,000 miles from the Sun (approximately 10 times farther than Earth). The high temperature of the core decreases quickly as the distance from the core increases; in the lower layers of the atmosphere, the temperature is around 80° F (27° C), and in the upper levels it is around -225° F (-140° C).
The average surface temperature on Saturn is around -300° F (- 184° C), but it varies greatly depending on the exact location. Saturn has a warm polar vortex on its south pole (the only planet in the Solar System to exhibit such a phenomenon!), which is the warmest part of its surface with temperatures around -188° F (-122° C). For comparison: the coldest temperature ever observed on Earth is -129° F (-89° C).
Most of Saturn’s Volume is Composed of Hydrogen
Saturn’s outer atmosphere consists of 96% molecular hydrogen (H2) and 3% helium (He). The rest is made up of methane (CH4; 0.4%), ammonia (NH3; 0.01%) and even smaller traces of other elements. The precise quantity of elements heavier than helium is not known currently, but their proportions are assumed to be close to primordial proportions of elements in the solar system. Elements and compounds present in the atmosphere form complex molecules in the planet’s clouds, such as water and ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH).
Saturn Weighs about the Same as 100 Earths
The mass of Saturn is 5.7 x 1026 kg, which equals approximately 95 Earths. According to its size, we would expect Saturn to have a much larger mass, but since Saturn is the only planet in the solar system with a lower density than water (it would actually float in water!), 1 cubic centimeter of the planet on average weights less than 0.7 grams. For comparison: 1 cubic centimeter of Earth has a mass of 5.5 grams on average.
Saturn’s surface gravity is only slightly bigger than Earth’s at 10.44 m/s². This means that a 200 lb. man would feel a weight gain of 13 lb. when on Saturn. To complicate things further, this would only be true on the surface near the poles. The strong centrifugal force of the planet, caused by its rapid spinning, affects the gravity near the equator by decreasing it to only about 91% of the gravity on Earth. This means that a 200 lb. man on the equator of Saturn would weigh only 182 lb.
Saturn Does Not Really Have a Solid Surface
Saturn facts reveal that all those stories, movies or images that show creatures standing on the surface of Saturn are a big lie. Why? Because Saturn, like other gas giants in the solar system, doesn’t really have a solid surface like Earth’s. Its surface is actually made of gas, and trying to stand on that surface would only result in falling inside the planet, where high pressure and high temperatures would destroy pretty much everything you can imagine.
If that is the case, how is the surface of Saturn even defined? Scientists usually define it as the radius where the atmospheric pressure is equal to the pressure on Earth’s surface at sea level (1 atmosphere). Taking that into account, we can define Saturn’s surface at about 60,000 kilometers from its core.
Saturn is Also an Important Mythological Being
According to Saturn facts, the planet was named for a very important mythological being – the ancient Roman god Saturnus. Saturnus is a god of agriculture, liberation, wealth and time, and is an equivalent of the ancient Greek deity Cronos, the father of Zeus, ruler of classical Olympian Greek gods Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite and others.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were aware of only the Sun, the Moon and five of the brightest planets that could be observed by the naked eye. Saturn was the outmost of the known planets of the time, so it was named after the most important god.
Galilei Was the First Person to See Saturn with a Telescope
Three main phases of observation and exploration of Saturn exist. The first phase is millennia old and involved observing the planet in the sky by naked eye. Babylonian astronomers observed the movements of the planet, and the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy even made calculations of its orbit, although these were not accurate.
The second phase began in the 17th century with the invention of the telescope. The famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first to observe Saturn’s rings through a telescope in 1610, but he thought they were actually two moons of the planet, one on each side. This was refuted by Cassini and Huygens a few decades later as they used better telescopes to discover Saturn’s largest moon Titan and four other moons. More moons were discovered more than 100 years later by William Herschel, the man who also discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.
The third and final phase (for now) started in the modern era with our ability to send spacecraft to distant planets in order to observe and explore them up close. Pioneer 11 was the first space probe to fly by Saturn. Launched in 1973, it reached Saturn in 1979 and passed it at a distance of approximately 20,000 kilometers. Two Voyager probes visited the Saturn system in the following years, but it was not until 2004 that a man-made spacecraft entered the orbit of the planet. The Cassini-Huygens space probe (named after two astronomers of the 17th century who observed Saturn’s moons) has explored Saturn and its moons ever since then, constantly providing ground-breaking information about the distant parts of our solar system.
Weather on Saturn is Much Worse than on Earth
Saturn’s weather is mostly determined by conditions deep in the planet’s core, and not by the Sun as one might expect. This can be attributed to the fact that Saturn is far from the Sun and generates its heat internally.
Low temperatures, strong winds and powerful storms are three distinct features of Saturnian weather. Temperatures of -300° F, winds that can reach speeds over 1,110 mph, and storms that can destroy life in an instant, make Saturn a rather inhospitable planet, at least for the types of life we know on Earth. Can you imagine living on a planet which has storms that create lightning 1,000 times more powerful than lightning on Earth? Such is the powerful Dragon Storm, which has been ravaging Saturn for many years now …
Saturn Is the Flattest Planet in the Solar System
Saturn facts show that the planet rotates around its axis so fast that its equator has become bulged and its poles almost flat. Its rotational speed of 22,000 mph is the second fastest in the solar system, behind only Jupiter’s, which is 28,000 mph.
This high speed and consequent bulging at the equator has caused Saturn’s polar radius to be 10% smaller than its equatorial radius, which can be easily observed in the planet’s distinct oblate shape. The other three gas giants in our solar system are also oblate, but to a much lesser extent.
Traveling to Saturn by Car May Not Be the Best Idea!
Forget about the minor issue that our cars can’t fly through space – the sheer distance between Saturn and Earth alone is enough to make such a travel practically impossible. Presuming that you would drive with an average speed of 70 mph (117 kph), it would take almost 1,300 years to reach Saturn when it is at its closest to our planet, and nearly 1,600 when it is at its farthest away. For those who are not very eager to calculate the distance by themselves: Saturn is approximately 1.2 billion km from Earth at its closest and approximately 1.67 billion km away at its farthest. But the distance between Earth and Saturn changes from day to day, since both planets are of course on their own orbits around the Sun…
Saturn Has Seasons, Just like Earth Does
Since Saturn’s axis is tilted relative to the Sun, just like the Earth’s, it also has different seasons. Its tilt is even slightly larger than Earth’s at 27 degrees (Earth: 23 degrees), which hints at even more intense seasonal changes. But since Saturn takes much longer to orbit the Sun than Earth does – approximately 29.5 Earth years – its seasons also last much longer than seasons on Earth, at nearly 8 years each.
We can practically observe seasonal changes on Saturn through wind speeds recorded by space probes that have visited the planet. In 1980, the Voyager probe detected wind speeds of 1060 mph, but in 2003, more than 20 years later, speeds were only around 625 mph – a difference easily explained by the change of season.
Saturn’s Rings May Not Be around Forever
The mighty rings around Saturn that give the planet its specific look could disappear in the future, at least according to some scientific theories. Scientists predict that Saturn’s rings will either be sucked by the gravitational pull into the planet, or will dissolve into space in approximately 50 million years.
Even now, the rings of Saturn occasionally disappear when observed by a regular telescope, but that is just a part of their seemingly periodic disappearance and reappearance that occurs due to ring plane crossing – this is when the rings are directly turned towards the Earth and since they are so thin, they cannot be seen…
We May Be Able to Learn More about Saturn in the Near Future
Saturn and some of its moons, especially Titan and Enceladus, are the potential targets of future human exploration and possibly even colonization due to their mining potential and possible ability to sustain human life. Thus it is no surprise that scientific research of the Saturn system in the following decades won’t stop.
At the moment, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is still exploring the Saturn system and is expected to do so at least until 2017 when the lifespan of the probe is expected to end. An in-depth future mission to Saturn, named the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM), is planned to launch sometime in the 2020s. According to the initial NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) plans, the mission was supposed to start in 2020, but was later postponed in favor of an exploration mission to Jupiter.
Maori People May Have Known of Saturn’s Rings Prior to Their Official Discovery
Saturn facts show that the rings of the planet were discovered by Galileo Galilei in the beginning of 1600s when he observed the planet through a telescope and thought they were actually moons around the planet. But the Maori people of New Zealand might have known of the existence of Saturn’s rings prior to that, since their ancient name for Saturn is Parearau, meaning surrounded by a headband. The similarity between the concepts of a headband and planetary rings is too big to be just a coincidence…
Despite Its Gassy Consistency, Most of Saturn’s Mass is not Gas
Saturn facts reveal that the planet is one of the four gas giants in our solar system, and, as such, consists mostly of gas (hydrogen and helium). But most of Saturn’s mass is not made up of gas, since hydrogen becomes a thing scientists call a “non-ideal liquid” at a certain density, which encompasses more than 99% of the planet’s overall mass. As the hydrogen nears the core, high temperatures and pressure transform it into a metal. Metallic hydrogen is, for the moment, only a theoretical prediction, since we have not yet been able to re-produce this condition in experiments.
Saturn May Be Cool, But Its Interior Is Very Hot
Saturn is one of the coldest planets in the solar system, but, surprisingly, has a very hot interior. Its core is believed to reach temperatures of 21,000° F (11,700° C), causing the planet to radiate 2.5 times more energy in space than it receives from the Sun (for comparison: Earth only radiates about one-third of the energy it receives from the Sun). Saturn’s internal energy is created through a Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression, or the process of helium droplets generating heat by friction as they descent through the lower-density hydrogen.
Saturn Has 2 Very Interesting Characteristics: The North Pole Hexagon and a Vortex
The Voyager spacecraft sent images of a persisting hexagonal wave pattern in the atmosphere around the north polar vortex at the latitude of about 78 degrees North. The hexagon is huge – each of its sides is about 8,600 miles long – longer than the diameter of our own planet. The pattern does not move longitude-wise like other clouds and is consequently a matter of much speculation and debate in the scientific community. The most widely accepted theory is that the hexagon was caused by a standing wave pattern in the atmosphere.
Another amazing feature of Saturn is the vortex found on the southern hemisphere, which was observed by the Cassini-Huygens probe in 2006. Of all the spectacular characteristics of the vortex, the most impressive is definitely its size, which is comparable to that of Earth.
Saturn Facts — Facts about Planet Saturn Summary
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second biggest planet in the solar system. It has a diameter nine times that of Earth, a volume equivalent to 764 Earths, and a mass of 95 Earths. Being one of the four gas giants in the solar system, Saturn has no solid surface like that of Earth, making possible future colonization very difficult. The planet got its name from Saturnus, the ancient Roman deity and father of the ruler of the classical Roman god Jupiter. Although Saturn is one of the coldest planets in the solar system, it has an extremely hot core with temperatures exceeding 21,000° F.