It’s time to put a ring on it
1. What are the stats?
Well, Saturn is a gas giant; it’s the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest after Jupiter. It is located at a distance of approximately 9.5 AU from the Sun which is almost a billion miles (1.4 billion km). It takes Saturn almost 30 Earth years to make a full orbit around the Sun, although it takes the planet just 10 and a half hours to do a full rotation on its axis. It’s about 74,000 miles (120,000 km) in diameter, but only at the equator. Like many other planets, the spin of the planet actually causes it to bulge so the diameter is larger at the equator than at the poles.
2. Let’s talk rings.
Obviously, the first thing anyone knows about Saturn is its ring system. Although we have already mentioned that Saturn isn’t actually the only planet with rings, these are the most well-known and the most visible. In fact, we spotted them 400 years ago (well, Galileo did). Despite having all that time to study them, we still aren’t sure how they were formed. It’s possible that they come from the natural satellites around Saturn, maybe from comets or asteroids that crashed into them. What we do know is that the rings are mostly made out of ice and rock.
3. Saturn has a lot of moons.
Speaking of natural satellites aka moons, we have discovered 62 moons around Saturn (so far), second only to Jupiter, and countless more moonlets. The biggest one is Titan and it’s quite special: it is the second largest moon in the solar system, it is actually bigger than the planet Mercury and it is also the only moon we know of with a significant atmosphere. You’ll want to check this out and see how eerily similar to Earth Titan looks once you can see through that thick atmosphere.
4. Those rings won’t last forever.
Scientists generally believe that, at some point, Saturn will lose the rings. The materials used to make them are either going to drift away into space or get sucked into the planet by its gravity. Either way, this won’t happen for millions and millions of years, if it happens at all.
5. Saturn has a giant ring.
Yeah, we’ve already covered rings, but this isn’t one of the rings you are thinking of. Well, it is one of Saturn’s rings, but it is in no way comparable to the other ones. First of all, it was just discovered in 2009 and it is absolutely massive. The image below does a better job to show you just how massive it is, but here are some figures anyway: it starts at around 3.7 million miles (6 million km) away from Saturn and goes on for another 7.4 million miles (12 million km). By volume, the ring is the equivalent of 1,000,000,000 Earths.
The ring is normally referred to as the Phoebe ring because there is a distant moon of Saturn named Phoebe which orbits the planet in that area. It is believed that the satellite is the source for the material used to make the ring. By material we mean very tiny particles of ice and dust that are dispersed widely. This is also the main reason why it took us so long to find something so massive. The ring is almost invisible to the naked eye. You could be travelling through it and not realize it. It only became visible when looked at through infrared.
6. Sometimes they disappear.
Ok, the rings don’t actually go away, but they do disappear from our perspective. This is because, like us, Saturn is spinning on a tilted axis. This means that at certain times we can see the rings in full view, but other times we are looking at them edge on and this makes them almost invisible.
7. It has a string of pearls.
Well, not really, but that is the unofficial name NASA gave to a 37,000 mile (60,000 km) long chain of cloud clearings photographed by Cassini’s infrared mapping spectrometer.
8. Saturn is made out of hydrogen.
This alone is not shocking or particularly interesting, but what is interesting is the state of that hydrogen – a liquid metal. Once you get past the outer layer and the so-called transition zone, the bulk of the planet is supposedly made out of liquid metallic hydrogen, a very unusual phase which is the result of the hot temperature and the giant pressure.
9. It has a giant vortex.
Everyone knows about the Great Red Spot on Jupiter but Saturn has something equally interesting – the North Hexagon. Ok, so the name might not be as catchy, but it’s still pretty interesting. It is a giant hexagonal cloud pattern located at Saturn’s North Pole.
10. It has a very low density.
In fact, it is the least dense planet in the solar system and the only one with a density lower than that of liquid water on Earth. This often leads to claims that Saturn would float in water which isn’t really true if you take into consideration all the actual parameters.