Our solar system is full of amazing places, but one of the most breathtaking must be the planet Saturn. This gas giant holds a special place in the imagination of space-enthusiasts everywhere thanks to its banded atmospheric clouds and stunning rings. The sixth planet from the sun, Jupiter orbits far from Earth beyond the asteroid belt. Despite the distance, scientists have learned a lot of interesting facts about this popular planet over many years of study.
This beautiful ringed planet is truly huge. When it comes to size, Saturn is second only to Jupiter in our solar system. Its average radius is nine times bigger than Earth's, and thanks to its volume it is also 95 times more massive. Mostly composed of hydrogen and helium, the planet has no definite surface. However, scientists think that it may have a solid core.
Like the other planets in our solar system, Saturn is named after a mythological figure. Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, was actually a Titan, the equivalent of Cronus from Greek mythology. He was said to be the father of the most significant gods in the Roman pantheon including Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune, and many others. Its astronomical symbol is derived from the sickle of this divine namesake.
Thanks to its huge size, Saturn has captured many moons in its orbit. Currently, it has at least 62 known moons. Of these satellites, 53 are significant enough to have their own names. Saturn's moons are named for other significant Greek or Roman mythological figures or giants from other mythologies. Jupiter barely squeaks out a moon-count victory with 63 in its orbit. However, Saturn also has a huge number of "moonlets" dancing between its rings, some as small as 40 meters in diameter.
Many of Saturn's moons are interesting, but Titan, the largest, is particularly fascinating. Titan is the second-largest moon in the entire solar system; it's even larger than Mercury. Plus, it's the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere. With the arrival of the Huygens probe in 2005, Titan became the most distant body to have a space probe land on its surface.
Apart from Earth, Saturn is the most recognizable planet in our solar system thanks to its stunning rings. Made mainly from ice and specks of dust, the rings were most likely formed in one of two ways. Scientists think the rings may be the remnants of a destroyed moon, or that they may just be material left over from its formation.
Due to its size and visibility, there is evidence that Saturn was known of even in prehistoric times. For example, astronomers in ancient Babylon recorded information about its movements. We know with certainty that the Greeks and Romans studied it, and Ptolemy even made a calculation of its orbit. Ancient Hindu, Hebrew, Chinese, and Japanese cultures all had different names for Saturn as well.
No spacecraft has landed on Saturn's surface since it is a gas giant. However, we have learned a lot about Saturn thanks to visits from four different probes. The first was Pioneer 10 in 1979, which got a few initial close-up images. Next was Voyager 1 in 1980, which sent back the first high-resolution images of the planet, rings, and moons. Voyager 2 visited the next year, sending back more information about the rings. Finally, in 2004, the Cassini-Huygens returned the most comprehensive data yet about Saturn and its massive moon, Titan.
Despite it being millions of miles away, you can see Saturn from Earth without any additional equipment given the right conditions. Saturn is the most distant planet that can be seen with the naked eye, and to in the visual spectrum, it is brown. Without a telescope or other viewing instrument, Saturn looks like a bright, yellowish point of light. However, with even just a simple, inexpensive 3-inch telescope or even good binoculars, amateur astronomers can get a good look at the planet's rings.
Fun fact: Saturn’s average distance from the Sun is 891 million miles.
Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft journeyed for nearly 20 years on its mission to reach and study Saturn, its rings, and its moons. Named for named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini and Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, this probe was the first to enter Saturn's orbit. Considered a wildly successful venture, Cassini sent back some of the most detailed information and the clearest pictures of Saturn ever taken. Cassini daringly slipped through gaps in the rings and between the rings and the planet itself before burning up in Saturn's atmosphere.
Density is a measurement that compares the amount of matter an object has to its volume. Saturn, being a gas giant, has a very large volume. Many people might, therefore, assume that Saturn must also have a large density. However, it actually has the lowest density out of all the planets in our solar system. Its density is even less than that of liquid water. This is mostly because it's largely made up of the two lightest gases, hydrogen and helium.