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Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Saturn, along with Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, is classified as a gas giant. Together, these four planets are sometimes referred to as the Jovian, meaning "Jupiter-like", planets.

Saturn is named after the Roman god Saturn (that became the namesake of Saturday), equated to the Greek Kronos (the Titan father of Zeus) the Babylonian Ninurta and to the Hindu Shani. Saturn's symbol represents the god's sickle (Unicode: ).

The planet Saturn is composed of hydrogen, with small proportions of helium and trace elements. The interior consists of a small core of rock and ice, surrounded by a thick layer of metallic hydrogen and a gaseous outer layer. The outer atmosphere is generally bland in appearance, although long-lived features can appear. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h, significantly faster than those on Jupiter. Saturn has a planetary magnetic field intermediate in strength between that of Earth and the more powerful field around Jupiter.

Saturn has a prominent system of rings, consisting mostly of ice particles with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust. Sixty-one known moons orbit the planet, not counting hundreds of "moonlets" within the rings. Titan, Saturn's largest and the Solar System's second largest moon (after Jupiter's Ganymede), is larger than the planet Mercury and is the only moon in the Solar System to possess a significant atmosphere.

Physical characteristics

A rough comparison of the sizes of Saturn and Earth.

Due to a combination of its lower density, rapid rotation, and fluid state, Saturn is an oblate spheroid; that is, it is flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator. Its equatorial and polar radii differ by almost 10%—60,268 km vs. 54,364 km. The other gas planets are also oblate, but to a lesser extent. Saturn is the only planet of the Solar System that is less dense than water. Although Saturn's core is considerably denser than water, the average specific density of the planet is 0.69 g/cm³ due to the gaseous atmosphere. Saturn is only 95 Earth masses, compared to Jupiter, which is 318 times the mass of the Earth but only about 20% larger than Saturn.

Internal structure

Though there is no direct information about Saturn's internal structure, it is thought that its interior is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded mostly by hydrogen and helium. The rocky core is similar in composition to the Earth, but denser. Above this, there is a thicker liquid metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a layer of liquid hydrogen and helium, and in the outermost 1000 km a gaseous atmosphere. Traces of various volatile are also present. The core region is estimated to be about 9–22 times the mass of the Earth. Saturn has a very hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at the core, and it radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Most of the extra energy is generated by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism (slow gravitational compression), but this alone may not be sufficient to explain Saturn's heat production. An additional proposed mechanism by which Saturn may generate some of its heat is the "raining out" of droplets of helium deep in Saturn's interior, the droplets of helium releasing heat by friction as they fall down through the lighter hydrogen.


The outer atmosphere of Saturn consists of about 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium. Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, phosphine, and methane have also been detected. The upper clouds on Saturn are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to be composed of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. The atmosphere of Saturn is significantly deficient in helium relative to the abundance of the elements in the Sun.

The quantity of elements heavier than helium are not known precisely, but the proportions are assumed to match the primordial abundances from the formation of the Solar System. The total mass of these elements is estimated to be 19–31 times the mass of the Earth, with a significant fraction located in Saturn's core region.

Cloud layers

Saturn's celestial body atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter's (the nomenclature is the same), but Saturn's bands are much fainter and are also much wider near the equator. At the bottom, extending for 10 km and with a temperature of -23 °C, is a layer made up of water ice. After that comes a layer of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, which extends for another 50 km and is approximately at -93 °C. Eighty kilometers above that are ammonia ice clouds, where the temperatures are about -153 °C. Near the top, extending for some 200 km to 270 km above the clouds, come layers of visible cloud tops and a hydrogen and helium atmosphere. Saturn's winds are among the Solar System's fastest. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn's finer cloud patterns were not observed until the Voyager flybys. Since then, however, Earth-based telescopy has improved to the point where regular observations can be made.

Saturn's usually bland atmosphere occasionally exhibits long-lived ovals and other features common on Jupiter. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope observed an enormous white cloud near Saturn's equator which was not present during the Voyager encounters, and, in 1994, another smaller storm was observed. The 1990 storm was an example of a Great White Spot, a unique but short-lived phenomenon which occurs once every Saturnian year, or roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere's summer solstice. Previous Great White Spots were observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, and 1960, with the 1933 storm being the most famous. If the periodicity is maintained, another storm will occur in about 2020.

In recent images from the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn's northern hemisphere appears a bright blue, similar to Uranus, as can be seen in the image below. This blue color cannot currently be observed from Earth, because Saturn's rings are currently blocking its northern hemisphere. The color is most likely caused by Rayleigh scattering.
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Astronomers using infrared imaging have shown that Saturn has a warm polar vortex and that it is the only such feature known in the solar system. This, they say, is the warmest spot on Saturn. Whereas temperatures on Saturn are normally -185 °C, temperatures on the vortex often reach as high as -122 °C.

A persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north polar vortex in the atmosphere at about 78°N was first noted in the Voyager images. Unlike the north pole, HST imaging of the south polar region indicates the presence of a jet stream, but no strong polar vortex nor any hexagonal standing wave. However, NASAmarker reported in November 2006 that the Cassini spacecraft observed a 'hurricane-like' storm locked to the south pole that had a clearly defined eyewall. This observation is particularly notable because eyewall clouds had not previously been seen on any planet other than Earth (including a failure to observe an eyewall in the Great Red Spot of Jupiter by the Galileo spacecraft).

The straight sides of the northern polar hexagon are each about 13 800 km long. The entire structure rotates with a period of 10h 39 m 24s, the same period as that of the planet's radio emissions, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn's interior. The hexagonal feature does not shift in longitude like the other clouds in the visible atmosphere.

The pattern's origin is a matter of much speculation. Most astronomers seem to think some sort of standing-wave pattern in the atmosphere; but the hexagon might be a novel sort of aurora. Polygon shapes have been replicated in spinning buckets of fluid in a laboratory.


Saturn has an intrinsic magnetic field that has a simple, symmetric shape—a magnetic dipole. Its strength at the equator—0.2 gauss (20 µT)—is approximately one twentieth than that of the field around Jupiter and slightly weaker than Earth's magnetic field. As a result the cronian magnetosphere is much smaller than the jovian and extends slightly beyond the orbit of Titan. Most probably, the magnetic field is generated similarly to that of Jupiter—by currents in the metallic-hydrogen layer, which is called a metallic-hydrogen dynamo. Similarly to those of other planets, this magnetosphere is efficient at deflecting the solar wind particles from the Sun. The moon Titan orbits within the outer part of Saturn's magnetosphere and contributes plasma from the ionized particles in Titan's outer atmosphere.

Orbit and rotation

Animation of hexagonal cloud feature.

The average distance between Saturn and the Sun is over 1 400 000 000 km (9 AU). With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 10 759 Earth days (or about 29½ years), to finish one revolution around the Sun. The elliptical orbit of Saturn is inclined 2.48° relative to the orbital plane of the Earth. Because of an eccentricity of 0.056, the distance between Saturn and the Sun varies by approximately 155 000 000 km between perihelion and aphelion, which are the nearest and most distant points of the planet along its orbital path, respectively.

The visible features on Saturn rotate at different rates depending on latitude, and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions (as in Jupiter's case): System I has a period of 10 h 14 min 00 s (844.3°/d) and encompasses the Equatorial Zone, which extends from the northern edge of the South Equatorial Belt to the southern edge of the North Equatorial Belt. All other Saturnian latitudes have been assigned a rotation period of 10 h 39 min 24 s (810.76°/d), which is System II. System III, based on radio emissions from the planet in the period of the Voyager flybys, has a period of 10 h 39 min 22.4 s (810.8°/d); because it is very close to System II, it has largely superseded it.

However, a precise value for the rotation period of the interior remains elusive. While approaching Saturn in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft found that the radio rotation period of Saturn had increased appreciably, to approximately 10 h 45 m 45 s (± 36 s). The cause of the change is unknown—it was thought to be due to a movement of the radio source to a different latitude inside Saturn, with a different rotational period, rather than because of a change in Saturn's rotation.

Later, in March 2007, it was found that the rotation of the radio emissions did not trace the rotation of the planet, but rather is produced by convection of the plasma disc, which is dependent also on other factors besides the planet's rotation. It was reported that the variance in measured rotation periods may be caused by geyser activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The water vapor emitted into Saturn's orbit by this activity becomes charged and "weighs down" Saturn's magnetic field, slowing its rotation slightly relative to the rotation of the planet itself. At the time it was stated that there is no currently known method of determining the rotation rate of Saturn's core.

The latest estimate of Saturn's rotation based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes was reported in September 2007 is 10 hours, 32 minutes, 35 seconds.

Planetary rings

Saturn is probably best known for its system of planetary rings, which makes it the most visually remarkable object in the solar system. They extend from 6 630 km to 120 700 km above Saturn's equator, average approximately 20 meters in thickness, and are composed of 93 percent water ice with a smattering of tholin impurities, and 7 percent amorphous carbon. The particles that make up the rings range in size from specks of dust to the size of a small automobile. There are two main theories regarding the origin of Saturn's rings. One theory is that the rings are remnants of a destroyed moon of Saturn. The second theory is that the rings are left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed.

On 6 October 2009, the discovery was announced of a tenuous outer disk of material that is in the plane of Phoebe's orbit, which is tilted 27 degrees from Saturn's equatorial plane. The ring is from 128 to 207 times the radius of Saturn, and is thought to originate from micrometeoroid impacts on Phoebe, which orbits at an average distance of 215 Saturn radii. The ring material should thus share Phoebe's retrograde orbital motion, and after migrating inward would encounter Iapetus's leading face, which could explain the two-faced nature of this satellite.

Natural satellites

Saturn has at least 61 moons. Titan, the largest, comprises more than 90 percent of the mass in orbit around Saturn, including the rings. Saturn's second largest moon Rhea may have a tenuous ring system of its own. Many of the other moons are very small: 34 are less than 10 km in diameter, and another 14 less than 50 km. Traditionally, most of Saturn's moons have been named after Titans of Greek mythology.

History and exploration

There are three main phases of observation and exploration of Saturn. The first era was ancient observations (such as with the naked eye), prior to the invention of the modern telescopes. Starting in the 1600s progressively more advanced telescopic observations from earth have been made. The other type is visitation by spacecraft, either by orbiting or flyby. In the 21st century observations continue from the earth (or earth orbiting observatories), and also from the Cassini orbiter at Saturn.

Ancient observations

Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. In ancient times, it was the most distant of the five known planets in the solar system (excluding Earth) and thus a major character in various mythologies. In ancient Roman mythology, the god Saturnus, from which the planet takes its name, was the god of the agricultural and harvest sector. The Romans considered Saturnus the equivalent of the Greek god Kronos. The Greeks had made the outermost planet sacred to Kronos, and the Romans followed suit.

In Hindu astrology, there are nine astrological objects, known as Navagrahas. Saturn, one of them, is known as "Sani" or "Shani," the Judge among all the planets, and by everyone accordingly to their own performed deeds bad or good. Ancient Chinese and Japanese culture designated the planet Saturn as the earth star (土星). This was based on Five Elements which were traditionally used to classify natural elements. In ancient Hebrew, Saturn is called 'Shabbathai'. Its angel is Cassiel. Its intelligence, or beneficial spirit, is Agiel (layga), and its spirit (darker aspect) is Zazel (lzaz). In Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and Malay, its name is 'Zuhal', derived from Arabic زحل.

European Observations 1600-1800s

Saturn's rings require at least a 15 mm diameter telescope to resolve and thus were not known to exist until Galileo first saw them in 1610. He thought of them as two moons on Saturn's sides. It was not until Christian Huygens used greater telescopic magnification that the rings were assumed to be rings. Huygens also discovered Saturn's moon Titan. Some time later, Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered four other moons: Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys, and Dione. In 1675, Cassini also discovered the gap now known as the Cassini Division.

No further discoveries of significance were made until 1789 when William Herschel discovered two further moons, Mimas and Enceladus. The irregularly shaped satellite Hyperion, which has a resonance with Titan, was discovered in 1848 by a British team.

In 1899 William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe, a highly irregular satellite that does not rotate synchronously with Saturn as the larger moons do. Phoebe was the first such satellite found, and it takes more than a year to orbit Saturn in a retrograde orbit. During the early twentieth century, research on Titan led to the confirmation in 1944 that it had a thick atmosphere—a feature unique among the solar system's moons.

20th and 21st Century NASA/ESA probes

Pioneer 11 flyby

Saturn was first visited by Pioneer 11 in September 1979. It flew within 20 000 km of the planet's cloud tops. Low resolution images were acquired of the planet and a few of its moons; the resolution of the images was not good enough to discern surface features. The spacecraft also studied the rings; among the discoveries were the thin F-ring and the fact that dark gaps in the rings are bright when viewed towards the Sun, or in other words, they are not empty of material. Pioneer 11 also measured the temperature of Titan.

Voyager flybys

In November 1980, the Voyager 1 probe visited the Saturn system. It sent back the first high-resolution images of the planet, rings, and satellites. Surface features of various moons were seen for the first time. Voyager 1 performed a close flyby of Titan, greatly increasing our knowledge of the atmosphere of the moon. However, it also proved that Titan's atmosphere is impenetrable in visible wavelengths; so, no surface details were seen. The flyby also changed the spacecraft's trajectory out from the plane of the solar system.

Almost a year later, in August 1981, Voyager 2 continued the study of the Saturn system. More close-up images of Saturn's moons were acquired, as well as evidence of changes in the atmosphere and the rings. Unfortunately, during the flyby, the probe's turnable camera platform stuck for a couple of days, and some planned imaging was lost. Saturn's gravity was used to direct the spacecraft's trajectory towards Uranus.

The probes discovered and confirmed several new satellites orbiting near or within the planet's rings. They also discovered the small Maxwell gap (a gap within the C Ring) and Keeler gap (a 42 km wide gap in the A Ring).

Cassini-Huygens spacecraft

Saturn eclipses the Sun, as seen from Cassini.
On July 1, 2004, the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft performed the SOI (Saturn Orbit Insertion) maneuver and entered into orbit around Saturn. Before the SOI, Cassini had already studied the system extensively. In June 2004, it had conducted a close flyby of Phoebe, sending back high-resolution images and data.

Cassini's flyby of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has captured radar images of large lakes and their coastlines with numerous islands and mountains. The orbiter completed two Titan flybys before releasing the Huygens probe on December 25, 2004. Huygens descended onto the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005, sending a flood of data during the atmospheric descent and after the landing. During 2005, Cassini conducted multiple flybys of Titan and icy satellites. Cassini's last Titan flyby commenced on March 23, 2008.

Since early 2005, scientists have been tracking lightning on Saturn, primarily found by Cassini. The power of the lightning is said to be approximately 1000 times that of lightning on Earth. In addition, scientists believe that the storm associated with it is the strongest of its kind ever seen.

On March 10, 2006, NASA reported that, through images, the Cassini probe found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Images had also shown particles of water in its liquid state being emitted by icy jets and towering plumes. According to Dr. Andrew Ingersoll, California Institute of Technology, "Other moons in the solar system have liquid-water oceans covered by kilometers of icy crust. What's different here is that pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface."

On September 20, 2006, a Cassini probe photograph revealed a previously undiscovered planetary ring, outside the brighter main rings of Saturn and inside the G and E rings. Apparently, the source of this ring is the result of the crashing of a meteoroid off two of the moons of Saturn.

In July 2006, Cassini saw the first proof of hydrocarbon lakes near Titan's north pole, which was confirmed in January 2007. In March 2007, additional images near Titan's north pole discovered hydrocarbon "seas", the largest of which is almost the size of the Caspian Seamarker.

In October 2006, the probe detected a 8,000 km diameter hurricane with an eyewall at Saturn's South Pole.

As of 2006, the probe has discovered and confirmed 4 new satellites. Its primary mission ended in 2008 when the spacecraft had completed 74 orbits around the planet. The probe is now in its first mission extension.

Best viewing

Saturn is the most distant of the five planets easily visible to the naked eye, the other four being Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter (Uranus and occasionally 4 Vesta are visible to the naked eye in very dark skies), and was the last planet known to early astronomers until Uranus was discovered in 1781. Saturn appears to the naked eye in the night sky as a bright, yellowish point of light whose magnitude is usually between +1 and 0 and takes approximately 29½ years to make a complete circuit of the ecliptic against the background constellations of the zodiac. Most people will require optical aid (large binoculars or a telescope) magnifying at least 20X to clearly resolve Saturn's rings.

While it is a rewarding target for observation for most of the time it is visible in the sky, Saturn and its rings are best seen when the planet is at or near opposition (the configuration of a planet when it is at an elongation of 180° and thus appears opposite the Sun in the sky). During the opposition of December 17, 2002, Saturn appeared at its brightest due to a favorable orientation of its rings relative to the Earth.

Image:Saturnoppositions.jpg|Saturn Oppositions: 2001–2029.Image:Saturn view from earth 2009.gif|Simulated view of Saturn from Earth. Saturn's rings crossed the orbital plane in August 2009, dimming the rings to invisibility, allowing an opportunity to discover more small satellites in the ring system.Image:Saturn's Narrowing Ring Shadow.png|The shadows of Saturn's rings appear as a narrow band on the planet in this image taken as Saturn approaches its August 2009 equinox.Image:Saturn Equinox Raw.jpg|Image of part of Saturn's ring system taken at equinox.Image:Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons.jpg|Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons at equinox.File:Cassini Reveals New Ring Quirks, Shadows During Saturn Equinox.OGG|Cassini's composite infra-red spectrometer instrument measured the rings temperatures during equinox.Image:Looking cool and serene, Saturn shares its soft glow with Cassini.jpg|Saturn just after equinox.

See also


  1. Saturn. Universe Guide. Accessed 29 March 2009.
  2. Patrick Moore, ed., 1993 Yearbook of Astronomy, (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), Mark Kidger, "The 1990 Great White Spot of Saturn", pp. 176-215.
  3. Bizarre geometric shapes that appear at the centre of swirling vortices in planetary atmospheres might be explained by a simple experiment with a bucket of water but correlating this to Saturn's pattern is by no means certain.
  4. Largest known planetary ring discovered, Science News
  5. Largest ring in solar system found around Saturn, New Scientist

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