Saturn has it all, but it’s those incredible rings make it an all out winner when it comes down to sheer good looks alone. Yes the other planets all have their charms and are amazing in their own right, but no other world sports a ring system quite like Saturn. It’s the solar system world that everyone recognises, even those who have never looked through a telescope. But if you have seen Saturn through a telescope, and as long as those rings are nicely tilted, it’s a sight you never forget.
Some quick Saturn facts…The sixth planet out from the Sun, Saturn is a gas giant with no solid surface, but is
thought to have a solid core of iron and nickel. It orbits on average 890 million miles from our star, taking 29.7 years to complete an orbit. Its day is just 10 hours and 14 minutes in length, meaning that colossal ball of gas is spinning very fast. Saturn is huge, not as huge as the biggest Jupiter, but definitely a hefty specimen. It takes the accolade of being the second largest solar system planet. You could fit 9.5 planet Earths across Saturn’s equator, and get 963 Earths into its volume. But Saturn’s mass is just 95 times that of Earth, meaning it has very low density. I bet you’ve heard the saying, “If you could get Saturn into a huge bath of water, it would float”. Well yes it would, that yellowish planet you see in the night sky (when visible) is actually less dense than water. The atmosphere of Saturn is made up mostly of molecular hydrogen (96.3 %) with the rest mainly being helium. It has cloud bands like Jupiter but they are not as pronounced, although some atmospheric features can be seen in amateur scopes including the odd storm that rages in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Talking of raging storms, winds on Saturn at the equator can get up to a very gusty 1,800 kilometres per hour, or 1,118 miles per hour. Yes they’re extremely fast winds, but the planet Neptune is actually the windiest planet with speeds touching 2,100 kilometres per hour. Now its those striking rings that encircle Saturn that make the planet pure eye candy. They are relatively very thin at under a kilometre from top to bottom, and made up mostly of ice ranging in size from fine dust size up to larger mountain sized chunks up to half a mile across. The rings extend out to nearly the distance from the Earth to the Moon, they’re ice so perfect at reflecting sunlight, that’s why they’re so visible through even small telescopes.
I remember the first time I saw Saturn through a small telescope, it doesn’t look the way you might expect. For want of a better term, I thought it looked almost “cartoony”. The rings were very clear and defined around the planet.
How many rings does Saturn have? Well that’s a tough one because you’d be counting down further and further to smaller and smaller rings and ringlets. But Saturn is known to have 3 main rings called the A,B, and C rings. A and B are seperated by the well known Cassini division, that can be glimpsed in amateur scopes. The Cassini Division is just under 3,000 miles wide, 4,800 kilometres and looks completely clear but actually has some ring material. More less dense rings are D, G, E and the F ring. The wide and fainter E ring is thought to be made by the water ice eruptions from geysers on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus as it travels on its orbit around the gas giant.
When you think of Saturn you’d probably instantly think of the majestic rings, yeah me too. But Saturn’s attractions don’t just stop at the rings and the planet, oh no! The gas giant also has a family of extremely interesting moons. From largest to smallest, they are Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, Mimas, Hyperion, Phoebe, Janus, Epimetheus, Prometheus, Pandora, and down to smaller and smaller moons to make a grand total of 60. One of the major Saturnian satellites is the only moon in the solar system to have a thick atmosphere, Titan. Now this place is really, really special. If you take a look up at our own Moon tonight, and imagine that the familiar face in the sky is covered in lakes. Hey that would be really cool, lakes on the Moon. Next imagine rivers running across the lunar surface. Now imagine the Moon also has rain, and wind, and clouds. Add to that hills, deltas, shorelines and valleys. That would make the view through your telescope or binoculars of our old friend Lunar even more special. A world orbiting a world! Well that’s just what Saturn has in the form of its mysterious moon Titan. Titan is also one of the largest moons in the solar system, even bigger than the planet Mercury, and larger than our own Moon. Titan is cold, really cold, so cold that methane can exist on the surface in the form of liquid. Now it is methane that takes the place of water on Earth, as the cycle of liquid. On Titan it rains methane, methane rivers run into methane lakes, and methane clouds blow through the orange sky. Water exists there but it never ever melts, so it stays hard as nails, and I suppose you could say that water takes the place of rock. Exactly the same processes are on Titan as Earth, weather, erosion, and a surface of land and liquid. All making it quite Earth like, but completely different materials are used, existing in a completely different temperature range. Although it is bone shatteringly cold, Titan is thought to resemble the early Earth in its chemistry, just before life was about to get its act together.
All the moons are interesting but one other moon apart from Titan that have scientists very excited is Enceladus. This moon is far smaller than Titan at only the size of England, yes you could drive across the thing in a day. But this little world has processes going on that suggest an underground ocean, and possibly even alien life. Enceladus is an ice moon, covered in cracks, splits, and craters. But down nearer the south pole is where all the action is. Here lies a series of four roughly parallel ravines about 130 kilometres long, 2 kilometres wide, and 500 metres deep. These are the “Tiger stripes” and mark an area of water ice eruptions, and internal heating. Enceladus has geysers shooting out from the region of the Tiger stripes, and can easily be seen by the Nasa Cassini Spacecraft. This area is “hotter” than the rest of the moon, suggesting a large body of liquid water is underneath. In fact there’s even more heat here than scientists expected. These geysers blasting from Enceladus throw ice crystals into space, and this is what is thought to be producing one of Saturn’s rings, the E ring. Salt has also been detected in the E ring, suggesting Enceladus could have a salt water ocean. Water is a great solvent for life, and where there’s water there’s usually life, and it tends to squeeze into the narrowest of niches. So Enceladus joins that exclusive club of solar system moons that could host extraterrestrial life.