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8 Fascinating Facts about Saturn

by Dani Johnson

January 25, 2013

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Donate I fell in love with the gorgeous gas giant when I was just a small child. Saturn is the most decorated of all the planets, much like a royal queen that rules over the Solar System with regal beauty and stunning force. Her circumplanetary jewelry box is replete with sparkling rings of all sizes and various orbital gems that adorn the air around her. Her beauty is nothing short of magnificent and the wealth of knowledge to be gained from her knows no bounds. I have already mentioned a lot about our lovely ringed planet in a previous post but today I am focusing on how fabulous Saturn really is with 8 fascinating facts about Saturn.

On the Final Frontier
October 15, 2007
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In Saturn's Shadow
October 11, 2006
With giant Saturn hanging in the blackness and sheltering Cassini from the sun's blinding glare, the spacecraft viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world. This marvelous panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera over nearly three hours on Sept. 15, 2006. The full mosaic consists of three rows of nine wide-angle camera footprints; only a portion of the full mosaic is shown here. Color in the view was created by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared and clear filter images and was then adjusted to resemble natural color. The mosaic images were acquired as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn's shadow for about 12 hours, allowing a multitude of unique observations of the microscopic particles that compose Saturn's faint rings.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A Splendor Seldom Seen
December 18, 2012
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow. The cameras were turned toward Saturn and the sun so that the planet and rings are backlit. (The sun is behind the planet, which is shielding the cameras from direct sunlight.) In addition to the visual splendor, this special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

8: Saturn would actually float in water if a cosmic sized swimming pool were available.

Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System, so it is surprising to learn that it is also the least dense. With a density of only 0.687 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), the giant planet would literally float in water (1 g/cm3) like a queen lounging in her heated pool if a cosmic sized luxury swimming pool were available.

7: Different parts of Saturn actually go around the axis at different speeds.

Saturn is a gas giant and the equator and poles of the planet rotate at different speeds, so we can't determine the exact length of time it takes Saturn to rotate once around its axis. The average is about 10.5 hours. NASA has compiled images to created three different movies that show the rotation of Saturn along with some of the moons.

6: Saturn's rings

Scientists aren't sure exactly why Saturn has rings. Some theories include comets or moons getting too close to the surface of Saturn and being shredded by tidal forces and some of the material comes from water geysers on the south pole of Enceladus. The rings are about 93% water with other impurities that cause some of the color. The particles range in sizes from that of a grain of dust to that of the size of an average bedroom. It's hard to tell the age of the rings but scientists believe they are only a few million years old. This means that if the first humans on earth had telescopes they would not have seen rings around our sixth planet. Scientists also believe that the rings will eventually dissipate and go away in the distant future and if there are people that are still looking into the skies they will also not see Saturn's beautiful rings. We are incredibly lucky to be living in the perfect time to see such a splendor.

5: Ring Spokes

We first saw these unusual patterns on Saturn's B ring that we call "spokes" when the Voyager missions went by Saturn. Scientists had no idea what they were and by the time Cassini got to Saturn they were gone. They appear to be a seasonal phenomenon and occur only a few hours at a time and whatever is causing them is still a mystery. In 2010 we discovered that the spokes are made up of water ice but even with this new information the spokes are still shrouded in mystery. NASA compiled images together to make a movie of the spokes.

Saturn's rings - high-resolution
December 17, 2004
Voyager 2 obtained this high-resolution picture of Saturn's rings on August 22, 1981 when the spacecraft was 4 million kilometers (2.5 million miles) away. Evident here are the numerous "spoke" features in the B ring; their sharp, narrow appearance suggests short formation times. Scientists think electromagnetic forces are responsible in some way for these features, but no detailed theory has been worked out.
Spokes of this nature were observed to persist at times for two or three rotations of the ring about the planet. Freshly formed spokes seemed to revolve around the planet at the same rate as the rotation of the magnetic field and the interior of Saturn, independent of their distance from the center of Saturn. It is therefore suspected that the tiny dust grains which form the spokes are electrically charged. Older spokes, which presumably have lost their electrical charge, revolve with the underlying larger ring particles.

4: Saturn is the most oblate planet in our solar system.

While the distance from the center to the poles is 54,000 km, the distance from the center to the equator is 60,300 km. In other words, locations on the equator are approximately 6,300 km more distant from the center than the poles.

Squashed As It Spins

October 17, 2007
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn spins so quickly on its axis that the planet flattens itself out. The oblate planet is a whopping 763 times larger than the Earth, yet it still only takes it about 10.5 hours to complete one rotation!

3: Saturn has 69 moons.

Astronomers continue to find new small moons orbiting Saturn, using both ground-based observatories and Cassini's own imaging cameras.
Credit: NASA

While Jupiter is the planet with the most moons in the Solar System, Saturn comes in a close second with 53 named moons plus 16 additional moons awaiting official confirmation. New moons are discovered frequently. There are even big pieces of rock and ice in the rings of Saturn that aren't considered moons but they are big enough to cause gaps in the ring system.

Mercury and Venus have no moons while Earth only has one and Mars has two. Jupiter has 50 named moons plus 9 additional moons awaiting official confirmation. Uranus has 27, Neptune 13 and even Pluto has 3 three moons.

2: Saturn has an amazing persistent hurricane on its south pole.

Dance of the Clouds
August 4, 2008
This view looks toward the planet's southern hemisphere from about 47 degrees below the equator. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on June 23, 2008 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of infrared light centered at 939 nanometers. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 468,000 kilometers (291,000 miles) from Saturn. Image scale is 25 kilometers (15 miles) per pixel.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Yet Yawning Gulf

October 13, 2008
Shadows reveal the topography of Saturn's south polar vortex. At high resolution, a new, inner ring of isolated, bright clouds is seen. These clouds are localized regions of convective upwelling, an important clue to understanding how heat energy is transported in Saturn's atmosphere.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Convection in Saturn's Southern Vortex
October 13, 2008
This detailed Cassini view of the monstrous vortex at Saturn's south pole provides valuable insight about the mechanisms that power the planet's atmosphere.
This view is 10 times more detailed than any previous image of the polar vortex.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn has an amazing persistent hurricane on its south pole. Just like a hurricane on Earth, the one on Saturn has a well defined eye that allows us to peer down into the hurricane and see deeper layers of the storm, which has revealed a mysterious set of dark clouds at the bottom of the eye. The monster storm is rotating at a staggering 563 kilometers per hour (350 MPH) and is about 8,000 kilometers across - about 2/3 of the diameter of Earth. NASA has put together images taken over a period of 3 hours to make this movie of the hurricane spinning.

1: Saturn has a hexagonal storm on its north pole.

Spring Reveals Saturn's Hexagon Jet Stream
December 9, 2009
This movie from Cassini, made possible only as Saturn's north pole emerged from winter darkness, shows new details of a jet stream that follows a hexagon-shaped path and has long puzzled scientists.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

There is a persistent storm on Saturn's north pole that is literally a hexagon. This storm is still shrouded in a lot of mystery but according to the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,

"The six-sided shape remains a mystery. Scientists think the hexagon is a meandering jet stream at 77 degrees north latitude, but they don't know what controls the path the stream takes. These images also show new phenomena for scientists to decipher, such as waves that can now be seen radiating from the corners of the hexagon where the jet takes its hardest turns. These images confirm the presence of a multi-walled structure in each of the hexagon's six sides, and the structure now can be seen extending to the top of Saturn's cloud layer. The images show that the inside of the hexagon is darker than the outside. The new images also show a large spot inside the hexagon that could be related to a dark spot seen inside the hexagon in 2006 in an image taken by Cassini's VIMS instrument. An earlier Voyager mosaic showed a large spot outside the hexagon. That spot existed at least until 1991 before disappearing into the long winter polar night."

Vortex at Saturn's North Pole

November 28, 2012
This image from NASA's Cassini mission was taken on Nov. 27, 2012, with Cassini's narrow-angle imaging camera. The camera was pointing toward Saturn from approximately 248,578 miles (400,048 kilometers) away.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Persistent Hexagon
October 8, 2008
Saturn's north polar hexagon appears to be a long-lived feature of the atmosphere, having been spotted in images of Saturn in the early 1980s, again in the 1990s, and then by the Cassini spacecraft in the past several years. The persistent nature of the hexagon in imaging observations implies that it is present throughout Saturn's 29-year seasonal cycle. Two sides of the hexagon are seen here.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


Saturn " Astronomy Cast

Saturnian Rings Fact Sheet - NASA

Cassini Images Bizarre Hexagon on Saturn

Saturn "

Saturn: Moons - NASA

Rotation of Saturn " Universe Today

Saturn Fact Sheet - NASA

Scientists Find Water Ice Creates the Spokes in Saturn's B Ring - Universe Today

Further Reading:

Feeding the Rings of Saturn - Skeptoid Blog

Passage to a Ringed World " Jet Propulsion Laboratory (.pdf book)

Saturn's Auroras Defy Scientists' Expectations

Classic Trails or Mini-Jets - NASA

by Dani Johnson

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