Interesting facts about Saturn
Saturn is one gorgeous gas ball.
If planets could put on sophisticated airs, gas-ball Saturn would take the crown as the diva of the solar system. It's a real looker and a lightweight. Its density is the lowest of all the planets, thanks to its gassy guts of mostly hydrogen and helium. The planet is lighter than water. Toss Saturn into a huge lake, and it would float like a kid's toy boat.
Saturn is light but large. It is the second-largest planet. Jupiter alone beats it size-wise at 88,700-miles wide, compared with Saturn's 75,000 miles. But what really gives Saturn its bragging rights is the beautiful set of seven lustrous rings that encircle the planet like the wide brim of a fancy hat. Some rings are separated by gaps. And the main rings are designated A, B, and C. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun. The planets, in order from the sun, are:
Pluto was the ninth planet on that list until 2006, when scientists reclassified it as a dwarf planet. The demotion capped long debates about what constitutes planethood. Ice-ball Pluto's tilted axis, its elliptical orbit and skimpy 1,400-mile diameter were some of the factors considered.
Saturn's rank is secure. Currently the planet is under scrutiny from a high-tech robotic exploration called the Cassini-Huygens mission. The Cassini spacecraft is 22-feet high, 13-feet around and weighs 2.8 tons. Its instrument-rich hitchhiker, a 700-pound marvel called the Huygens Probe, already has blasted away from the orbiter and parachuted down to Titan. Titan is the largest of Saturn's 33 named moons.
Cassini-Huygens is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn. Pioneer 11 (1979), Voyager 1 (1980), and Voyager 2 (1981) have flown past. Cassini-Huygens left its Florida launch pad in 1997. It finally reached Saturn's orbit in 2004, when it catapulted unscathed through one of the gaps in Saturn's rings. The space mission is sponsored jointly by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).
Saturn was named for the Roman god of agriculture and has drawn curious stares for centuries. One of the most avid viewers is a mission namesake. Renowned Italian-French Astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, discovered four of Saturn' major moons. Cassini also first described the Cassini Division, the mysterious gap that separates Saturn's ring A from its ring B. Cassini also discovered Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Other gaps are also named for the scientists that discovered them.
The other mission namesake is Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens. In 1655 he discovered Titan, Saturn's largest moon. In 1656 he peered closely enough at Saturn's rings to see they were mostly made of icy rocks.
Today scientists are observing new things thanks to Cassini-Huygens. They are getting to know Saturn better and learning more about Titan's craters, mountains and frozen lakes of liquid hydrocarbons. According to NASA if Cassini remains fit for duty at the end of its 70-plus orbits, the four-year mission may be extended. If it's getting rickety, it might be parked in an orbit and abandoned or smashed into the planet.
The planet Saturn is 884.6-million miles from the sun. It's about 250 degrees below zero. Despite the chill it's compressed rocky core, which is about the size of Earth, is sizzling hot. Interesting facts about Saturn must include the interior temperature which is about 21,150-degrees Fahrenheit. Chances are it's a roiling glob of liquid metallic hydrogen enveloped in a vaporous hydrogen layer.
Saturn is a planet that is fascinating to watch in its trek across the skies. It is very bright and often appears golden in color. It's one of five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) visible to the naked eye. Don't worry about blinking and finding it gone. It's a very slow-moving planet and during 2008 will be easily viewed through July.
Saturn's long viewing season is January through July and is caused by its slow journey around the sun. It takes Saturn almost 30 Earth years to make just one orbit. That means the planet is visible to Earthlings for about six months before it recedes during the more distant portion of its journey. On its own slightly tilted, vertical axis, however, it's a fast spinner. Its days and nights come around every 11 hours, compared with Earth's 24-hour cycle.