I got my best image of Saturn to date. It was so good that I have developed a man-crush for the giant ringed sentinel. Jupiter and Saturn act as guardians of the interior planets. Without their amazing gravitational power, we may not be in a perfect orbit to promote life. They also absorb and deflect/fling many asteroids and comets away, negating many of the threats that may have easily affected us (in a bad way). So, I am writing a short post devoted the Saturn’s awesomeness and it’s rings. There are many other amazing facts for you to find (like it’s famous hexagon storm engulfing it’s entire north pole), so if this interests you there is tons of other sites and sources waiting to be read. Enjoy!
Saturn is one of the most astounding and siren objects we can see in space. Even better, it is visible to the naked eye, and with a little work, you can see it’s impossible rings.
You see, the thing about the rings that makes it so amazing is that the theories of the ring’s creation are wildly different. Have they been there since the dawn of our solar system? Did it form around and along with Saturn? Or did a collision happen very recently, perhaps with some of it’s moons or moonlets (glorified rocks locked in orbit). Perhaps even an asteroid or comet?
Some of the rings are known to be fed by some of it’s moons. Enceladus is a bill of frozen ice with a rocky, molten core. Most moons don’t have a molten core like the rocky planets do. It is usually caused by large amounts of mass and the pressure they create, but this moon (an others around other planets, mostly the gas giants) has a different mechanism. It is pushed and pulled by the moons it orbits near and the massive gravity of Saturn. It physically changes shape under the pull of the various sources of strong gravity, and this stretches and crushes it like a ball of dough. Yet at this level of mass, it causes enough friction and pressure to heat the core to extreme temperatures. Since Enceladus’s shape is constantly changed, the ice cracks and leaves fissures. If the fissures are deep enough, like ones viewed on it’s south pole, it reaches deep enough to expose water which was thawed by this entire process. It spews out of the cracks and into space. It is caught by Saturn and was recently discovered to be a main contributed to the ring system.
The largest moon, Titan, is even more interesting. It is very large and also has a molten core. It also has a thick orange atmosphere that blocks several surface lakes/seas of liquid methane. In 2010 a cryo-volcano (or ice volcano) was discovered on the surface. It is identical to regular volcanos but spews freezing methane and other ices. This also contributes to the rings.
It appears the rings have always been there, heavily influenced by it’s 60 known moons (it was something like 30 moons when i was in grade school!). Or, like human skin, always looks identical yet is constantly renewing the dust, ice and rocks in which make it up. Who knows though?
Lastly, a couple of facts to blow your mind. Saturn’s rings are largely invisible. Beyond the visible rings is another ring, several times more massive than what you see. It is so thinly comprised that you wouldn’t notice it, even if you were standing within it. This is similar to the rings of Jupiter. Yes, Jupiter has rings. You would need special instruments to view them.
Also, the (visible) rings are around 175,000 miles wide, yet from top to bottom they are razor thin. To help you envision how thin they are, imagine a yard or meter stick somehow bent into a perfect circle. Now imagine that this circular yard stick is 10,000 times thinner than a razor. At that size, the stick would be hardly visible, if at all. NASA states that the rings are as little as 30 feet wide in some areas, and no more than 300 feet wide in others. Yet if you could drive a car on top of them, it would take weeks to drive from the inner ring to the outer ring. It would take under a second in some cases to drive from the top to the bottom, though. Cool, right!?
Saturn is also much farther from Earth than we might think. It is easily bright enough to spot as an orangish/yellow dot, yet it’s rings are visible through decent binoculars. This is amazing when to consider that you could fit the orbits of all the planets from Mercury to Jupiter in between the gap that lies between Jupiter and Saturn. This means it is twice the distance from the Sun than Jupiter is. Interestingly enough, Uranus is twice the distance from the Sun as Saturn. The rocky interior planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the outlying asteroid belt with dwarf planet/asteroid Ceres and Vesta within in) are packed together way tighter than the gas giants.
When you view Saturn, it is anywhere from 9 to 10 times the distance Earth lies from the Sun. This is anywhere from 1.4-1.5 million km.
It makes the picture I took that much more precious to me. Everything I have described is multiplied by several magnitudes when you realize that all of these amazing attributes have been reduced to a few handfuls of pixels in my camera. The light I captured lft Saturn two hours before I aimed the viewfinder at it. Essentially, I was looking back in time. Saturn had left this spot 120 minutes beforehand and in reality was actually a few degrees to my west/right.
I could go on forever, but won’t. The universe is so amazing.
(A closer look):