With the exception of Earth, Saturn is arguably the most mesmerizing planet in our solar system. From the famous rings, to its astonishing 62 moons, let’s look at the top 10 amazing facts about Saturn.
CORRECTION at 3:15: It's supposed to be "billion" not "million" kilometers.
Composition of Saturn’s Rings
Let’s get to the most interesting part – The rings. Saturn’s beautiful and dazzling rings are mostly bits of ice pulled together by complex gravitational forces. The composition of these particles and the type of light shining at them gives off the stunning colors we’re familiar with. Scientists count seven layers of rings, lettered A through G in order of discovery. Like its moons, Saturn’s rings are very diverse in scale, ranging in thickness from 30 feet, or 10 meters, all the way to 19,000 miles, or 30,000 kilometers. Despite what many cartoons may say, you can’t skate on them… which really, really sucks.
Defining the Rings of Saturn
We already mentioned that ancient civilizations were familiar with Saturn, but none actually saw the planet – at least, not clearly. It wasn’t until 1610 that Galileo Galilei actually saw the planet in more vivid detail. The telescope of the period didn’t allow him to see much, but he noticed a halo that he couldn’t explain. About 50 years later, a Dutch astronomer named Christiaan Huygens theorized that such halos were because of planetary rings. Following Huygens in 1675, Giovanni Cassini confirmed the theory when he identified a “gap” in the halo. In honor of both Huygens and Cassini, NASA named its Saturn space mission after the two men, a mission that provided the most detailed imagery yet of our solar system’s second-largest world.
Saturn’s moon Titan is.. wild.
Enceladus has gotten the recent buzz, but Titan still gets the most attention. Titan is a wild place, like, Spring Break at Cancun wild. This orange moon is lined with Earthline terrain, including mountains, deserts, and river beds. There’ve been two unmanned missions to Titan in the past 20 years, each one giving a more vivid picture of the giant moon. While Titan looks similar to Earth, it doesn’t look to be habitable because of its richness in methane–which, when mixed with oxygen, can be a combustible disaster. Of course, its freezing temperatures of -280 degrees Fahrenheit or -173 degrees Celsius don’t help either.
Enceladus is Saturn’s Brightest Moon
Some moons stand out more than others, with Enceladus, specifically, being the type to need the spotlight. This small moon could sit nestled between Los Angeles and San Francisco because it’s, well, small; but it still has a lot of scientists abuzzr. For starters, it’s the brightest object in our solar system, thanks to its white, icy surface. The surface is freezing at temperatures of -330 degrees Fahrenheit, or -201 degrees Celsius. There is one area not that cold, though – the south pole. That warm section emits fountains of ice that blast hundreds of miles into space. The combination of ice and warmer temperatures has astronomers speculating about the possibility of life.
Saturn is surrounded by moons
Saturn has a lot of moons. Seriously, a lot. Sixty-two, if we’re going off of NASA’s official numbers. Each is named after deities and mythological beings, and not just Greek and Roman: there’s Ijiraq from the Inuit culture and Bebhionn from Celtic myth. They’re pretty diverse in name, and size. The largest and perhaps most popular of them is Titan, which is bigger than the planet Mercury or Pluto. On the other side of the spectrum is the smallest, Mimas, which can fit inside the state of Texas. Then there are the shapes: spherical, cylindrical, saucer…ical. Of the 62 moons, 9 are still awaiting names – so perhaps you can contact NASA and request your own name, like after your favorite YouTube channel.. eh, eh?
How far away is Saturn?
Get ready for some big numbers because Saturn is VERY far away from us. It’s the sixth planet from our Sun, so you’d expect it to be way out there. Depending on its state of orbit, Saturn can be anywhere from 840 million to 930 million miles from the Sun. For the rest of the world, that’s roughly 1.35 to 1.5 million kilometers from our solar capital. For our Earth-centric viewers, you selfish bunch you, that’s nine and half to ten times the distance between Earth and the Sun.
How big is Saturn?
Saturn is one of four gas giants in our solar system. Saturn is so gigantic, in fact, that it could fit 764 Earths inside of it. Its also has the distinction of being the second largest planet in our solar system; second to only Jupiter. The planet measures 75,000 miles, or 120,000 kilometers in diameter — nine times wider than Earth’s. Because of its gassy state, you can’t actually stand on Saturn, there’s simply nothing on the surface to support you. 96% of the planet is made up of hydrogen, a pretty unstable element to begin with. There is a solid core, in theory at least, but no one is certain how big it is.
Saturn has an unorthodox North Pole
Funky may actually be a better word than unorthodox. You may imagine a north pole to be something circular or misshapen, but not on Saturn. Saturn’s north pole is surrounded by a near perfect hexagon. At about about 20,000 miles, or 32,000 kilometers wide, Saturn’s pole is large and full of swirls, or stormy winds that travel at about 200 miles, or 320 kilometers per hour. The swirls are due to the low-friction atmosphere; how the hexagon is formed, well, is still a mystery.
The discovery of Saturn
Saturn is one of those planets that isn’t really new. Yeah, we know it’s billions of years old, but we mean that people have known about it since Antiquity. That’s because Saturn’s large size makes it noticeable to the naked eye on certain nights. Astronomers noted Saturn as far back as the early first millennium BC. Ancient Chinese, Greek, and Indian scholars actually incorporated the planet into their pantheons. In fact, the 2nd-century Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy even came up with a calculation to Saturn’s orbit using Earth and the sun as base points.
Roman God of Time
Actually, he was the god of a lot of things, including farming, freedom, and weekends. Well, maybe not weekends specifically, but Saturday gets its name from him. Saturn shares similarities with the Greek titan, Kronos, but Romans declared Saturn to be their own special god. He, the patron deity of the city, had a temple in the forum, and guarded the Roman treasury. Romans were so keen on him that they celebrated a December holiday, Saturnalia, which shared similarities with modern day Christmas.