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Facts about Saturn

 

 

 

 

Saturn is considered by many to be the most beautiful planet in our solar system.   Sporting a spectacular series of rings around it that are visible in Earth-based telescopes, this stunning planet is a fascinating system of rings, moons, atmosphere, magnetosphere, clouds, storms, lightning and radio emission.  Saturn is similar to Jupiter in that it is a gas world made up of mostly hydrogen and helium, with smaller amounts of methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other materials.

Saturn’s atmosphere is much like that of Jupiter, having swirling clouds of gases that circulate around the planet and have a banded structure in appearance.  The colors and bands on Saturn are somewhat more muted than they are on Jupiter.  Occasionally though, great storms occur on Saturn which put massive white clouds higher in the atmosphere and rage for long periods of time throughout many latitudes. Adjacent bands in the atmosphere rotate in opposite directions around the planet.  This creates shear zones that form roiling storms that spin creating spots in the otherwise smooth butterscotch atmosphere.

 

 

 

 

  Saturn has been visited by 4 spacecraft.   These were Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and Cassini.  These spacecraft missions  have provided humanity with a wealth of knowledge about this spectacular world.   

Pioneer 11 visited Saturn in 1979 and took the first close-up pictures as well as measuring the magnetic fields and particles in the Saturn magnetosphere.  It also took the first pictures and measurements of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.   The pictures looked like featureless tennis balls, as Titan has a thick, smoggy atmosphere, thicker than our atmosphere on Earth and the cameras could not see through it.   However, we gained valuable knowledge of the Saturn system which helped the later missions, Voyager 1 and 2, to explore Saturn.

 

Voyager 1 first flew by Saturn in 1980 and Voyager 2 in 1981.  They provided fantastic data and images of this system, discovered new moons and took better measurements of the magnetosphere, atmosphere and rings.

The Cassini spacecraft is currently exploring Saturn.  Cassini is an orbiter, whereas the previous missions were flybys.    Cassini had a probe attached to it when it launched called the Huygens probe. It was a small craft attached to the side of the Cassini orbiter which was released and landed on Titan on January 14, 2005.  This probe took measurements as it parachuted down to the Titan surface and then took pictures and measurements when it landed on the surface.    These astonishing images were the first time humanity was able to see what Titan’s surface actually looks like.   Huygens appeared to have landed on a shore line with many small ice boulders lying around and partially submerged in the icy muddy surface.

 

 

Some facts about Saturn:

·         Saturn is 10 times farther from the Sun than Earth is.   The Earth is one “astronomical unit” from the Sun, that is, about 93,000,000 miles.  Saturn is, therefore, nearly 10 astronomical units from the Sun, specifically, it is ~ 885,900,000 miles from the Sun.    The Sun would look much smaller at Saturn than it does to us here on Earth.

·        The temperature in the cloud tops of Saturn is about -288 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

·        The amount of helium in Saturn is very similar to that in the Sun.

 

·        Lightning occurs in the clouds of Saturn.   Lightning bolts in Saturn have been found to be a million times stronger than lightning that occurs in Earth’s atmosphere.   The energy of this lightning can be detected by spacecraft as SKR (Saturn kilometric radiation) which sounds like crackling static in the radio signal.

 

·         Much like Jupiter, Saturn has no solid surface as we know it.    The gaseous hydrogen in its atmosphere gets more and more dense as one moves down into the planet until the enormous pressures convert it into “liquid metallic hydrogen”, a material that only exists in laboratories on Earth and in the interiors of planets.    You could not walk on Saturn; you could float in its clouds with a balloon but not land on a surface.

 

·        The length of a day on Saturn appears to have changed in the time since the Voyagers visited Saturn 25 years ago.  Then, the day was measured (from radio emissions) to be 10 hours, 39 minutes   (compared to our 24 hours in a day, so Saturn rotates faster than Earth !)    Now, Cassini measures the day on Saturn to be 10 hours and 45 minutes !    Isn’t that amazing ?    It is not clear why this change has occurred, although scientists think that the part of Saturn’s magnetic field that puts out the radio emissions that are used for the measurement of the day may have moved to a higher latitude inside the planet.   This would give a different rotation rate than before.     Other, newer theories (3/07) suggest that the emission of gaseous material from Enceladus puts a drag on the field lines of Saturn's magnetic field and slows down the rotation of the field, giving the impression of a longer day.   The field lines are expected to be tied to the rotation of the interior of Saturn; if material is emitted from Enceladus and then gets ionized, it sticks to the magnetic field lines and then slows down their rotation !   So, it may seem like Saturn is rotating more slowly than it did 25 years ago, but this may not be the case. 

·         Saturn has at least 56 known moons in orbit around it.   Each one has a unique geology and appearance.   Some, such as Hyperion, have a “smashed” look that defies explanation.    Titan has a thick atmosphere made up mostly of nitrogen.   It also has an exotic hydrocarbon chemistry going on which creates different types of aerosol particles, giving it its smogged-in appearance.  Many of the other moons have extraordinary geology that as yet is not understood.

 

 

                                          

Mimas - bullseye !                                               Enceladus - geysers  

 

                    

 Enceladus - hot at the south pole              Enceladus - folded ice canyons - "ice cream"

 

                         

   Tethys   - rift valley                                    Dione  - softened craters

 

   

                     

  

 Rhea     - 2nd largest moon                          Hyperion - What is that ?

 

 

 

                   

 

  Hyperion - like a sponge ??                     Iapetus - ring of mountains right at the equator ! 

 

 

 

                                        

 

 Phoebe - weird unexpected geology             Pandora - one of Saturn's smaller moons - smoothed craters

 

                           

Titan - totally smogged in                           Picture of Titan's surface - amazing !

 

  • Saturn's atmosphere has a chemistry similar to that of Jupiter.  Most of the atmosphere is made up of hydrogen and helium.  There are also smaller amounts of other chemical compounds in Saturn's butterscotch atmosphere.

  • The list of chemicals and their chemical formulae includes: 

    •   hydrogen (H2)

    •  helium (He)

    • ammonia (NH3)

    • methane (CH4)

    • water (H2O)

    • hydrogen sulfide  (H2S)

    • neon (Ne)

    • krypton (Kr)

    •  argon (Ar)

    • xenon (Xe)

    • ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH )

    • disulfur (S2)
    • elemental sulfur (S8)
    • germane (GeH4)
    • deuterated hydrogen (HD)
    • phosphine (PH3)
    • arsine (AsH3)
    • carbon dioxide (CO2)
    • deuterated methane (CH3D)
    • ethane (C2H6)
    • acetylene (C2H2)
    • methyl acetylene (CH3CCH)
    • benzene (C6H6)
    • ethylene  (C2H4)
    • propane  (C3H8)

 

·        The rings of Saturn are a marvelous example of mathematics in motion.   The ring particles have size distributions according to their histories of being smashed up and pulverized to smaller particles as well as clumping together to create bigger particles in an equilibrium dance that has been going on for eons.   The gaps in the rings are from resonances that clear out particles from those areas by giving them energy boosts from neighboring particles in quantized resonance orbits. 

                    

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              ** Resonance ! **

 

 

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Saturn's rings - astonishing detail                      Close-up of Saturn's rings - mathematical beauty             Spokes in Saturn's rings

 

 
  • Saturn’s rotation axis is lined up almost perfectly with its magnetic axis.  This is unlike Earth, where our magnetic (north) pole is offset from our rotation pole.    Our magnetic pole is somewhere in northern Canada where all compasses actually point to.   Our rotation pole is at the North pole !   And South pole (of course).    The magnetic and rotation poles are offset from each other by about 10 degrees on Earth.    On Saturn, they are right on top of each other, so compasses on Saturn would be more accurately pointing north than they do on Earth !
  • The names of Saturn’s largest 9 moons are (going out from the planet):   Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Phoebe.  

  • The Cassini mission is still exploring Saturn and sending back fantastic data and images every day.   You can see the latest pictures and follow the mission at:  http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

                   * See our Triton Fun Science Newsletter for an article about Enceladus  (in the May issue)

 

 

 

 

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Facts about Jupiter

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photos:  NASA/JPL/STScI/ESA/SSI

 

Last modified 6/11/07