Saturn in astronomy photo

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The planet Saturn in astronomy


Saturn, 1998 by the HST

The 1998 Hubble photo above shows Saturn in reflected infrared sunlight. The different colors indicate varying heights and compositions of cloud layers believed to consist of ammonia ice crystals. The bright stripe barely discernable within the left ring shadow is infrared sunlight streaming through a large gap in the rings. Two of Saturnís 62 known moons appear as tiny dots of light: Tethys on the upper right edge of Saturnís disk, and Dione in the lower left. All of the gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune) have rings; Saturn's are just by far the most pronounced.

Saturn is the last planet that can be see with the naked eye, although in extremely clear seeing conditions Uranus can be seen with good eyesight. It is also the least dense of all the planets, and would float in water. Even though Saturn has 9.5 times the Earth's diameteróand therefore about 760 times the Earth's volumeóits low density gives it a surface gravity less than that on Earth: on the surface of Saturn we would weigh less than we do here. The only problem is that there is nothing there to stand on. Saturn doesn't really have a surface; it's composed of 99% hydrogen and helium with a little methane, ammonia, and water vapor thrown in. Saturn's low density and its 11-hour dayóextraordinarily fast rotation for a planet 75,000 miles in diameteróalso make it the least spherical of all the planets. It's over 7300 miles thicker at the equator than it is at the poles.



Saturn eclipsing the Sun, with Earth


Eclipsing the Sun, the night side of Saturn is partly lit by light reflected from its own rings. Visible above in spectacular detail is Saturnís E ring: the diffuse, outermost ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus. The Earth itself is a barely visible pale blue dot at about 10:00, outside the bright, wide inner rings and just inside the first single ring (that is itself within the outermost E ring). Taken by the robotic Cassini spacecraft from the opposite side of Saturn, APOD January 11, 2009.

At 888 million miles from the Sun, it takes sunlight 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach the ringed planet. That's also how long it took our control signals to reach the Cassini-Huygens mission when we were sending it instructions to separate and parachute to the surface of Titan. Because of its great distance, the average cloud top temperature on Saturn is about 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit! It takes Saturn 29.5 years to circle the Sun.





Saturn's ultraviolet aurorae

These ultraviolet aurorae tower more than 1000 miles over Saturnís cloud tops at both poles. Launched Oct. 15, 1997, the Cassini mission which took this picture took 7 years to reach Saturn (with gravitational assists from Venus, Earth and Jupiter on the way), arriving July 1 2004. The Huygens probe then separated from the Cassini main body, parachuting to Titan (picture below) on Jan. 14, 2005.




fluid flow on Titan, largest moon in the solar system

Second only to Jupiterís Ganymede in size, Titan is the only satellite with an atmosphere: thick, smoggy, and mostly Nitrogen like Earth. Methane rain, evaporating lakes, flowing rivers, and water ice-volcanoes all likely exist there, at about -300į Fahrenheit. The dark lakebed across the bottom, thought to be dry at the time of the photo, recently contained a flowing liquid, possibly methane. APOD Jan. 24, 2005.




tiger stripes on Saturn's moon Enceladus

Fresh tiger stripes on Saturnís moon Enceladus might be spewing fresh ice into space from its icy interior, creating a cloud of fine particles over the moonís S. pole and Saturnís mysterious E-ring. APOD September 6, 2005.

This Planet-Saturn-in-astronomy page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.



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© Carl Woebcke: The Planet Saturn in astronomy, 1991-2017. All rights reserved.