Named for the Roman God of Agriculture, Saturn is possibly one of the most intriguing and most beautiful planets in our Solar System. The second largest planet in the Solar System, Saturn stands alone as one of the most heavenly bodies in the night sky. For centuries, man has marveled at this ringed orb, but it has only been in modern times that scientists have truly began to uncover some of the intriguing details that make Saturn so unique among its planetary siblings. Here are a few of the top things to know about this fascinating planet:
1. Party of Five
Five planets, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, were known to the ancients, because they could be seen with the naked eye. The remaining naked eye planet, Saturn, can be identified by its pale yellow hue in the night sky. In the year 2011, the celestial body will be traveling through the constellation of Virgo. The planet is moving retrograde from the star Spica and towards the star Porrima.
2. Saturn Light
For ages, people have said that blood is thicker than water and talked about items lighter than air. For Saturn, the truth is that the planet is less dense than water. With a density of 0.687 grams/cubic centimeter, the planet could float on a pool of water. The visual is incredible when one thinks about the fact that 764 planets the size of Earth, with a density of 5.52 grams/cubic centimeter, could fit inside Saturn.
3. Saturn’s Sixty-two Sensational Satellites
In 1655, Giovanni Cassini, 17th century astronomer, discovered Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons. Since that time, scientists have discover about 62 moons circling the planet. While Jupiter holds the record for most satellites (63), Saturn’s moons are of particular interest because of their size, locations within and around the rings and their potential to sustain life.
4. Close Encounters of the Spacecraft Kind
The Planet Saturn has been subject to study for centuries. NASA, at times partnering with the international community, has sent four space crafts to study the ringed wonder. In 1979, Pioneer 11 traveled past the planet. In 1980 and 1981, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 passed the gas giant. In 2004, the Cassini orbiter, began circling the planet and providing detail information about the planets rings and its several moons. In November 2010, through the Cassini mission, scientists discovered evidence of oxygen on one of Saturn’s moons. It's through the Cassini's continuing mission that scientists hope to learn more about the planet.
5. By Any Other Name
Just as our friends and family have nicknames, so do celestial bodies. For Saturn, the moniker is “Jewel of the Solar System.” It’s Saturn’s breathtaking beauty that earns it this name.
6. Quick Time
While a day to humans consists of 24 hours, a day on Saturn is much less. Saturn spins faster than Earth and it takes 10 hours and 14 minutes for the Earth’s Solar sister to make a complete rotation. Due to this fast rotation, Saturn is flattened at its poles.
7. A Blustery Day
Hurricanes, tornadoes and cyclones are how we understand extreme weather which can produce wind speeds in the hundreds of miles per hour. On Saturn, windy weather is another matter all together. Atmospheric conditions are such that the winds around the planet’s equator are approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) per hour.
8. Rhea Loses Her Ring
The majestic rings about Saturn are not unique in that other planets also have rings, but few know that one of Saturn’s own satellites, Rhea, was believed to have a ring as well. Named for the mythological Mother of the Gods, Saturn’s second largest satellite once was photographed with debris orbiting the planet. Upon recent data from the Cassini orbiter, the debris is gone, but scientists have discovered unusual electromagnetic activity around the large satellite. Instead, the moon has been discovered to have an atmosphere of oxygen.
9. Red Spot, White Spot
Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, is known for its Great Red Spot. Few know that Saturn, the next largest gas giant planet, has a large white spot. The spot, also referred to as the Great White Oval, is associated with massive atmospheric storms, occurs in 30-year intervals, and has been observed since the 19th century.
10. A Star is Not Born
Unlike Earth, Saturn is not entirely comprised of solid rocks and minerals. The large planet is comprised of approximately 97% hydrogen, 2.5% helium, and a remaining mix of methane, ammonia, phosphine, and ethane. Similar in composition to Jupiter, Saturn is not a failed star as some had thought. Saturn is less like a planet and more like the Sun, which consists of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium; however, Saturn’s lack of sufficient mass make it a poor candidate for a replacement or second (or even third) Sun.
Saturn is one of the most intriguing bodies in the night sky. It’s golden strikes, white spot, rings and flatten poles make a celestial marvel. For thousands of years, stargazers have looked up at the pale golden planet and for a hundred more years, scientists will continue to be intrigued by the planets uniqueness and mysteries.
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