Saturn is my all-time favorite celestial object. I used to have a dog-eared book about the Solar System that I read over and over again, pausing to marvel at the part about Saturn. How is it possible for a planet to have ice rings? What would it be like to fly out and view the planet for yourself, to witness the rings for yourself? How did it come to have so many weird moons?
I bought my first telescope, a 4-inch Newtonian, from a local firm in Vancouver when I was 14 years old. It was summer, and Saturn was one of the first planets to appear shortly after sunset.
My telescope’s power and magnification were exactly right for resolving the planet and its renowned rings. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when I first glanced at Saturn through the eyepiece that I was actually seeing the planet with my own eyes. It didn’t look exactly like the photos, but I was able to fill in the blanks with my imagination.
My interest in astronomy and Saturn increased as a result of those early observations, leading to a career in science journalism. It’s funny to reflect on how far I’ve come and how everything can be traced back to those warm summer hours spent gazing at Saturn.
Do you think you know everything there is to know about Saturn? Reconsider your position. Here are ten interesting facts about Saturn, some of which you may already know and others which you definitely didn’t.
1. Saturn is the Solar System’s least dense planet. The density of Saturn is 0.687 grams per cubic centimeter. Water has a density of 1 g/cm3 and the Earth has a density of 5.52. Saturn is less thick than water, therefore if you could find a large enough pool, it would float like an apple. Of course, with all that hydrogen, helium, and ice, why would you want to damage a pool…
2. Saturn is a spherical planet. The planet Saturn rotates so fast on its axis that it flattens out into an oblate spheroid. Seriously, when you look at a photograph of Saturn, it appears as if the planet has been compressed a little. The rapid rotation, of course, is squeezing it, causing the equator to flare out.
The distance between the center and the poles is 54,000 kilometers, but the distance between the center and the equator is 60,300 kilometers. In other words, sites on the equator are 6,300 kilometers farther from the center than those at the poles.
On Earth, we have a similar occurrence where spots on the equator are further out from the Earth’s center, but it’s much more dramatic on Saturn.
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3. The rings were first assumed to be moons by scientists. Galileo could see Saturn and its rings when he first pointed his primitive telescope at it in 1610, but he had no idea what he was looking at. He speculated that the rings could be two enormous moons clinging to Saturn’s sides – perhaps ears?
Christian Huygens, a Dutch astronomer, did not utilize a superior telescope to examine Saturn until 1655. He came to the realization that Saturn’s moons on either side were truly ringing: “a thin, flat ring, nowhere touching, and inclined to the ecliptic.” Huygens is also credited with being the first to discover Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
4. Spacecraft have only visited Saturn four times. Only four spacecraft have ever been despatched from Earth to visit Saturn, and three of them were only flybys. Pioneer 11, which flew within 20,000 kilometers of Saturn in 1979, was the first. In 1980, Voyager 1 was launched, followed by Voyager 2 in 1981. Cassini was the first spacecraft to enter orbit around Saturn in 2004 to take photographs of the planet, its rings, and moons.
There are no plans to deploy any more spacecraft to Saturn in the future. A few missions have been planned, including one that would use a sailboat to go through Titan’s liquid methane lakes.
5. Saturn has a total of 62 moons. Jupiter has 67 known moons, whereas Saturn comes in second with 62. Some of them are quite enormous, such as Titan, the Solar System’s second-largest moon. However, the majority are small — only a few kilometers across – and have no official names. The last several were discovered only a few years ago by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. In the future years, more will most likely be unearthed.
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6. Until recently, the length of a day on Saturn was unknown. Because Saturn lacks a solid surface, determining its rotation speed proved extremely challenging. Unlike Mercury, astronomers couldn’t just wait for a single crater to rotate back into view; instead, they devised a brilliant solution: the magnetic field.
Astronomers have to measure the rotation of Saturn’s magnetic field to establish the planet’s rotational speed. Saturn’s orbit takes 10 hours and 14 minutes to rotate according to one measurement, however, Cassini measured the rotation at 10 hours and 45 minutes when it reached Saturn. The average day is now 10 hours, 32 minutes, and 35 seconds, according to astronomers.
7. Saturn’s rings could be very old or very youthful. Saturn’s rings could have existed from the formation of the Solar System, some 4.54 billion years ago. Or they could be relatively new in comparison to Saturn’s age. The formation of Saturn’s rings is still a mystery to astronomers.
They could have developed lately, when Saturn’s gravity tore apart a 300-kilometer ice moon, generating a ring around the planet.
It’s also possible that they’re remnants of Saturn’s formation in the solar nebula. Saturn’s gravity may have jostled the material in the rings, preventing it from coalescing into a coherent Moon.
However, astronomers have discovered that the ring material appears to be far too pristine to have formed millions of years ago, and could be as young as 100 million years old. It’s all a great mystery to me.
8. The rings vanish from time to time. They don’t actually vanish, but they give the impression of doing so. Saturn, like Earth, has a tilted axis. Saturn’s location changes as it makes its 30-year voyage around the Sun, as seen from our perspective. The rings are sometimes fully open, and we see them in all their splendor, while other times they are edged on as if they have vanished. This occurred in 2008-2009 and will occur once again in 2024-2025.
9. You can see Saturn up close and personal. Saturn is one of the five planets that can be seen without a telescope. You can go outside at night to see Saturn if it is visible in the sky. You’ll need a telescope to see the planet’s rings as well as the planet’s ball. You can, however, astound your friends and family by pointing out that bright star in the sky and informing them that they are staring at Saturn.
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10. It’s possible that there’s life around Saturn. There is no life on Saturn; the planet is far too hostile for life to exist. However, one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, may have life.
The Cassini spacecraft observed ice geysers erupting from Enceladus’ southern pole lately. This implies that some mechanism keeps the moon warm enough for water to remain liquid under its surface. And we find life wherever there is liquid water on Earth.