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Lord Of The Rings


I don’t think anyone will disagree with me if I say that Saturn is the most striking planet in our Solar System. And really, when you look at the model or an image of the Solar System, no planet captures your attention as much as Saturn does, partially because of its size, but mostly because of its impressive rings. The first person to see Saturn’s rings was Galileo Galilei in 1610, however, looking through his telescope, he thought they resembled large satellites. It wasn’t until Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered, with a help of a much more powerful telescope, that the satellites were in fact  a flat ring.

Much later, it was discovered that Saturn had many concentric rings consisting of ice and rock particles, billions of them, ranging in size and diameter, some of them being as small as a grain of sand, and some of them measuring kilometers across. They are mostly made up of debris left from comets, asteroid or shattered moons. The width of Saturn’s rings is 282 kilometers. Some reseach suggest that Saturns’s rings might disappear one day, whether it’s because of the dispersion, or the planet’s gravitational pull. But, this isn’t to happen any time soon.

saturnpreview_cassini

Cassini Approaches Saturn

Source: http://apod.nasa.gov/; Credit: JPL, ESA, NASA

In terms of size, Saturn is the second largest planet in our Solar System, with Jupiter being the largest. We’ve already mentioned in one of the previous posts, that despite its size, it has the lowest density of all planets, due to the fact that it’s made up of hydrogen and helium, although the core is solid. When compared to Earth, it is approximately 760 bigger and rougly 95 times heavier. The core alone is about 10 to 20 times larger than Earth.

Saturn has at least 62 moons, with Titan being the largest. It is so large, in fact, that it’s bigger than Mercury, and is the second largest moon in our Solar System, right after Jupiter’s Ganymede. Titan is the only moon that possesess an atmosphere, consisting mostly of nitrogen, probably similar to the Earth’s atmosphere, before life started developing. Many of these rings have very unusual characteristics, such as Pan and Atlas, which are shaped like flying saucers, or Iapetus, whose one side is entirely dark black, and the other one is bright white. There’s also Enceladus, which demonstrates signs of ice volcanism, with ice geysers blasting out water and other chemicals. That means that there might be a chance that Enceladus could support life.

PIA12826_690w

Source: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

So far, out of all the spacecrafts sent from Earth, only four have visited Saturn, with only one entering Saturn’s orbit, while the other three did only brief fly-bys. Pioneer 11 was the first, in 1979, then came Voyager 1 in 1980, followed by Voyager 2 in 1981. Finally, Cassini spacecraft, that was launched in 2004, succesfully entered Saturn’s orbit, and even took first photographs of its surface, rings and moons. Also, the spacecraft carried the Huygens probe, which penetrated Titan’s atmosphere, and managed to land on its surface. Unfotunately, there are no plans regarding new Saturn missions for the time being, even though some radical concepts have been suggested, such as sending a sailboat that could traverse the methane lakes on Titan

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