The 8 Planets – Part 6: Saturn



Poor Saturn is neither the largest nor the most massive. But this planet may be most eccentric— memorable in its appearance and properties. Named after the Titan of Time, Saturn was the Roman king of the Titans and father of Jupiter. Saturn is the least dense planet, even less dense than water! How does this happen? Saturn is only 1/8 the density of Earth, but with its large volume, is over 95 times more massive than Earth. Comprising mainly of the lightest element, hydrogen, Saturn is very “light” for its size. Saturn’s mass is 95 times that of Earth, but its volume is 764 times that of Earth. Since density = mass/ volume, Saturn’s large volume and relatively small mass equates to a very small density (0.687). So, if you build an enormous bathtub and fill it with H2O, Saturn would bobble around on the surface like a rubber duckie! In contrast to Jupiter’s myriad of colorful bands and zones, Saturn’s upper atmosphere of mainly ammonia crystals gives the planet a bland yellow-brown coloration. Once every 30 years, Saturn exhibits ephemeral storms on its banded surface, one known as the Great White Spot. At its North Pole, Saturn has a weird hexagon-shaped storm that may be a novel aurora or a wave pattern. Underneath that banal surface, winds reach up to 1,100 mph, faster than those on Jupiter! Unlike its ever-changing gaseous layers, Saturn’s core may be solid iron, nickel, and rock. Reaching up to 11,700 °C at the core, Saturn radiates 2.5 times more energy than received from the Sun by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression and the “raining out” of droplets of helium in its interior. Accumulating into a helium shell surrounding the core, the helium droplets release heat by friction passing though low density hydrogen. Layers of metallic hydrogen (deep), liquid hydrogen and liquid helium (intermediate), and hydrogen gas (outer) blanket the core. Electrical currents within the metallic hydrogen caused Saturn’s weak magnetic field to form. Effective at deflecting solar wind particles, Saturn’s magnetosphere also produces aurorae. Saturn has magnificent, highly reflective ice rings, perfectly visible with a telescope. All gas giants have rings, but with nine main continuous rings, three discontinuous arcs if ice particles, rock debris, and dust, Saturn and its rings are truly inseparable. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens suggested Saturn was surrounded by a ring. Since then, astronomers have named the main rings from A to G. The Cassini Division is a large gap between rings A and B, and the Roche Division is a gap between rings A and F. Some moons, like Pan and Prometheus, are shepherd moons that prevent Saturn’s rings from expanding.


Saturn has the second most number of moons with 62. Inhabit Saturn’s rings, Saturn’s moons range from the hundreds of “moonlets” to its largest natural satellite Titan. Of its 62 known moons, Saturn has 53 with actual names, 13 with diameters larger than 50 km, 7 with hydrostatic equilibrium due to planetary mass, dense rings, and complex orbits of their own, 24 regular satellites (prograde orbits not greatly inclined) named after Titans and Titanesses, and 38 irregular satellites with farther orbits and high inclination orbits and named after Inuit, Norse, and Gallic mythological characters. There can be no objective boundary for the classification of Saturn’s moons, for Saturn’s rings contain objects from the microscopic to the largest object Titan.



The most prominent is Titan. Larger than Mercury, Titan is the only moon to retain a substantial atmosphere. Titan produces white convective clouds in cold nitrogen and methane atmosphere. Its surface is relatively young with few impact craters, dark regions of frozen hydrocarbons, flow channels, volcanoes, and sand of frozen water or hydrocarbons. The only moon with large bodies of methane/ ethane lakes, Titan, like Ganymede and Europa (Jupiter’s moons) may have a subsurface ocean of water and ammonia. The largest lake on Titan, Kraken Mare, is larger than the Caspian Sea.


Saturn’s moons

MIMAS: smallest and least massive of inner round moons, large impact crater called Herschel, no known geologic activity

ENCELADUS: one of the smallest of Saturn’s spherical moons, smallest known body geologically active, diverse surface that includes ancient heavily cratered terrain and younger smoother areas, south pole unusually warm and emits jets of water vapor and dust that replenishes material in Saturn’s E Ring and is the main source of ions in Saturn’s magnetosphere, may have liquid water under south pole, pure ice and high reflective surface

TETHYS: third largest inner moon, large impact crater called Odysseus, cast canyon system called Ithaca Chasma, composed of mainly water ice with little rock

DIONE: second largest inner moon, heavily cratered old terrain, extensive system of troughs and lineaments named “wispy terrain” indicates tectonic activity

RHEA: second largest moon, only moon that has rings, two large impact basins called Tirawa and Inktomi (“The Splat”), a young crater which has butterfly-shaped bright rays, geologically dead

HYPERION: closest moon to Titan (when Titan makes four revolutions, Hyperion makes three), very irregular shape, sponge-like tan-colored icy surface, numerous impact craters, no well-defined poles or equator (chaotic rotation) which makes its rotational behavior unpredictable

IAPETUS: third largest moon, most distant large moon, greatest orbital inclination (orbits at a greater altitude, at 14.72°), one hemisphere is pitch-black (Iapetus’s leading hemisphere collides with dust and ice particles as it rotates, darkening its surface) and the other is bright as snow

MISSIONS: Cassini-Huygens, Pioneer 11, Voyager


  • Order in Solar System: #6
  • Number of Moons: 62
  • Orbital Period: 29.5 years
  • Rotational Period: 10.5 hours
  • Mass: 5.6846 x 10^26 kg (95.152 Earths)
  • Volume: 8.2713 x 10 ^14 km³ (763.59 Earths)
  • Radius: 60,268 km (9.4492 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 4.27 x 10^10 km² (83.703 Earths)
  • Density: 0.687 g/cm³ (less than water!)
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.056
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 134 K
  • Escape Velocity: 35.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.47 to -0.24

Fun Facts Cluster 2: From Space Rocks to Drones (AskAstro)

1. SPACE ROCK SUICIDE: Scientists can detect a comet or asteroid colliding into the Sun’s surface. The self-destructing comet or asteroid will explode due to pressure of traveling into the Sun’s photosphere. The brightness and impact of the collision depends on the mass of the object. A collision as such is high unlikely, however, because: 1) most comets and asteroids would to dust and vapor in the sizzling atmosphere of the Sun 2) objects will lose most of its mass as they approach the Sun 3) objects normally orbit the Sun, so the objects’ orbit must be altered or the object may be from another planetary system.

2. STELLAR DONATIONS: In a binary star system, if stars are close enough, tides can become so strong that the more gravitationally strong star call pull gas from the surface of its companion. Though the “tidal transfer” depends on the mass of the donor star, if two stars have equal mass, the accretor (the star gaining mass) will steal mass if the donor star’s radius exceeds 38 percent of the binary separation (distance between the stars) no matter the separation.

3. COLOR CODE: The dark and light horizontal bands depend on the organization of winds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The light bands have a eastward jet on the side closest to the pole, and vice versa in the dark bands. The zones (light bands) appear bright because of colorless high-altitude clouds that contain ammonia ice. The belts (dark bands) have much thinner high altitude clouds and darker particles.

4. DANGEROUS FLYBY: NASA calculates the planetary flybys with nothing but Newton’s laws of motion. The desired closest approach depends on the mission and how much added velocity boost the mission requires.  The mass and closeness of the planet determines the bending of trajectory the probe must undergo. The approach distance can range from a few hundred to several thousand kilometers.

From: Astronomy magazine December 2012 Vol 41 Issue 12

Curiosity: Update 8 – Methane-less Mars

Shooting Lasers from MSL’s TLS instrument

Mars has lost at least half its atmosphere since the planet’s inception, Curiosity confirms. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Other than shielding life from harmful UV radiation, atmosphere also controls the fluctuations in climate. Because Mars’ atmosphere contains more heavier varieties of carbon dioxide than lighter ones, the ratio suggest the planet has sadly lost much of its atmosphere. Mars’ thin atmosphere has nearly untraceable amounts of methane, only a few parts of methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere. Microbes like bacteria emit methane. In fact, 95% of methane on Earth is produced by biological processes. Though Curiosity failed to find traces of methane in Gale Crater, Mars may yet host methane elsewhere.

Curiosity used its SAM instruments (Sample Analysis at Mars) and TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer). In the near future, SAM will analyze its first solid sample to search for organic compounds in rocks.

In addition, air samples from Curiosity match ones from trapped air bubbles in meteorites found on Earth. Ergo, those meteorites definitely originated from Mars. 1 billion years ago, a large asteroid collided into Mars and split into fragments.


 “NASA Rover Finds Clues to Changes in Mars’ Atmosphere.” JPL Caltech. JPL, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <;.

Vergano, Dan. “NASA’s Curiosity rover confirms Mars lost atmosphere.” USA Today. USA Today, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <;.

Curiosity: Update 7 – Fingerprinting Martian Materials

X-Ray View of Martian Soil

The latest of Curiosity’s analyses show that the Martian minerals is similar to “weathered basaltic salts of volcanic origin in Hawaii.”  Curiosity’s CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument refines and identifies minerals in X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars. X-ray diffraction records hows minerals’ internal structures’ crystals react with X-rays. Identifying minerals in rocks and soil is crucial in assessing past environmental conditions. Each mineral has evidence of its unique formation. These minerals have similar chemical compositions but different structures and properties. The samples taken at “Rocknest” were consistent with scientists’ initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater. Ancient rocks suggest flowing water, while minerals in younger soil suggest limited interaction with water.


“NASA Rover’s First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals First X-ray View of Martian Soil” JPL Caltech. JPL, 30 Oct 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012.