Saturn: all you need to know about a planet with splendid rings in 18 questions

It is the second largest planet in the solar system. With its icy and rocky rings, Saturn is unlike any other. Here’s everything you need to know about this gas giant.

Surrounded by its magnificent rings, the imposing Saturn does not go unnoticed in the ballet of the planets of the solar system. Although she’s not the only one to own them, it’s hard to deny that hers are the most spectacular. This big ball of gas, which is the second largest planet, is the darling of many professional and amateur astronomers.

Here is everything you need to know about Saturn in 18 questions.

The planet Saturn in the solar system

Saturn is the sixth planet in the solar system, by its distance from the Sun, and the second largest planet (behind Jupiter).

What is the distance of Saturn from the Sun?

Saturn is at an average distance of 1.43 billion kilometers from the Sun. Very exactly, 1,426,666,422 kilometers. This is equivalent to 9.5 astronomical units (one astronomical unit equals the Earth-Sun distance, or about 150 million kilometers). At this distance, light from the Sun takes about 1 hour and 19 minutes to reach Saturn.

The planet Saturn in the solar system. // Source: Nino Barbey for Numerama

What is the distance between Earth and Saturn?

The distance between Earth and Saturn varies constantly, as the two planets each move in their orbits around the Sun.

This distance is smallest when Saturn is at opposition, that is, when Saturn is aligned with the Earth and the Sun. Thus, Saturn was at opposition on Sunday August 14, 2022: its distance from Earth was then 8,857 astronomical unitsor 1.32 billion kilometres.

How long is the trip to Saturn?

The journey to Saturn is long, very long. We can take as a reference the time it took for NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission, launched in 1997, to reach the planet. The probe entered orbit around Saturn in 1997. It took more than 7 years to make this trip, or very exactly 2,664 days.

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The planets of the solar system.  // Source: Pxfuel/CC0 (cropped photo)

Characteristics of Saturn

Famous for its stunning rings, Saturn has many other surprising features that deserve to be better known.

How big is Saturn?

Saturn is a much larger planet than Earth: it is about 9 times larger than Earth. Its diameter is estimated at approximately 116,500 kilometers.

What is the mass of Saturn?

The mass of Saturn is estimated at 568,319,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. It is the only planet in the solar system less dense than water. Saturn is one-third the mass of Jupiter, its neighbour.

Where does the name Saturn come from?

Saturn is one of the planets visible to the naked eye (the farthest in the solar system that can be seen without the aid of an instrument), which made it possible to discover it in antiquity. The name given to it is that of the Roman god Saturn, father of Jupiter, associated with agriculture and wealth.

Is Saturn rocky or gaseous?

The planet Saturn is gaseous. Like its neighbor Jupiter, it contains mainly hydrogen and helium. If we could put Saturn in a giant bathtub, it could float there, because the planet is even less dense than water.

What does the surface of Saturn look like?

Since it is a gas giant, Saturn does not really have a surface. This body is essentially composed of gases and liquids, and no ship could land there, as we know how to do on Mars, for example. Besides, traversing the swirling depths of the planet would vaporize any probe that dared venture there. This is exactly how the Cassini-Huygens probe completed its mission in 2017: by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Is there life on Saturn?

It seems unlikely that life as we know it could exist in Saturn’s environment. The conditions (temperature, pressure) are so extreme that organisms would not survive.

Certain moons of Saturn, however, hold promise for this quest for life. The internal oceans of Enceladus and Titan are thus considered by scientists as interesting places to explore further, in this perspective.

Is there water on Saturn?

Saturn has no solid surface, but there is plenty of water there. Traces of water in the form of vapor exist in its atmosphere. Also, its rings mostly contain water ice.

What is the temperature on Saturn?

With the exception of Venus, we can remember that in the solar system, the further a planet is from the Sun, the colder it is. On Saturn, the average temperature is estimated at -140° C (at the level of its atmosphere, where the pressure is equal to that of sea level on Earth).

How long is a day on Saturn?

Saturn is not the fastest spinning planet in the solar system — it is preceded by Jupiter in this ranking. However, it is also fast: the day lasts barely 10 hours and 40 minutes.

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The planets of the solar system.  // Source: Pixabay

How long is a year on Saturn?

The length of a year on Saturn, i.e. the time it takes to revolve once around the Sun, is 10,759 Earth days. Or roughly 29 ans.

Why does Saturn have so many moons?

Saturn does not revolve around the Sun alone: ​​its many moons keep it company. It is quite simply the planet in the solar system with the greatest number of moons. Saturn has 82 monday, of which 53 confirmed. For the 29 others, it is still necessary to validate their discovery and to name them officially. The most interesting for scientists are undoubtedly Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and Enceladus (the sixth natural satellite of Saturn, by its size). Strangely, Saturn’s moons bear little resemblance.

The origin of Saturn’s moons certainly has to do with how the solar system itself is thought to have formed. It is likely that many bodies floated around Saturn and the other gas giants in formation, and were attracted by their strong gravitational pull.

Why does Saturn have rings?

Saturn’s rings are thought to be remnants of comets, asteroids, or even moons. These bodies would have been “torn” under the effect of the powerful gravitational attraction of the planet. This ring system is vast: it extends up to 282,000 kilometers from the gas giant. Saturn’s rings rotate, but not at the same speed. Unfortunately, these structures are not immortal: scientists estimate that Saturn’s rings will be gone in 300 million years.

Every 15 years, a strange phenomenon takes place: Saturn’s rings seem to “disappear”. In reality, it is our perception that plays tricks on us. This is linked to the seasons on the planet: regularly, we see the rings of Saturn “by the edge” – but they are always there.

Observation and exploration of Saturn

Humanity has been observing the beautiful Saturn for centuries. More recently, she has also started to explore it a little more closely.

How can we observe Saturn?

Saturn is one of the planets of the solar system that we are lucky enough to be able to observe with the naked eye, regularly, throughout the year. If you have a telescope or a telescope, you can of course use it to better see the planet.

When to observe Saturn in 2022?

One of the most favorable periods for its observation is the moment of opposition (including the days preceding and following this date): Saturn is then visible almost all night, because it rises when the Sun sets, and vice versa. You can find all the dates of the oppositions of Saturn on the website of the Institute of Celestial Mechanics and Ephemeris Calculation. In 2022 Saturn’s opposition took place on August 14th. This will happen again on August 27, 2023.

We can also take advantage of the conjunctions of Saturn with the other planets visible to the naked eye and/or the Moon, to locate it more easily in the night sky. To know the dates of these events, remember to consult our monthly calendars of astronomical phenomena.

Which missions explored Saturn?

The remoteness of Saturn and its hostile environment make the exploration of this planet complex. However, humanity has already succeeded in approaching it via probes on several occasions. It all started in 1979, with Pioneer 11. The next big step in Saturnian exploration concerns Titan, one of the planet’s moons, which will be studied more closely by Dragonfly.

DateNomObjectiveStatus
1979NomPioneer 11ObjectiveExploration of the outer regions of the solar systemStatuscompleted
1980NomVoyager 1ObjectiveStudy of the outer planets of the solar systemStatusActive
1981NomVoyager 2ObjectiveStudy of the outer planets of the solar systemStatusActive
2004NomCassini–HuygensObjectiveExploration of the Saturnian systemStatuscompleted
2034NomDragonflyObjectiveStudy of Saturn’s largest satellite, TitanStatusIn development

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Source: Numerama by www.numerama.com.

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