CLOSE
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

9 Essential Facts About Saturn

This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Saturn is the planet you always drew in elementary school because without those rings, it's just a circle. But what is Saturn, anyway, and what makes it special to planetary scientists? Now is a good time to find out: On September 15, the scientists who operate the Cassini spacecraft—which they've used to study the gas giant for 13 years—are going to intentionally destroy Cassini by sending it on a crash course with Saturn. The data it will send back before it meets its fiery demise will be priceless.

Mental Floss is going to be inside mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as the scientists send Cassini on its grand finale mission. We'll have a full dispatch for you. In anticipation, we spoke to Saturn experts to find out what you need to know about the planet before Cassini takes its final plunge.

1. SATURN BY THE NUMBERS.

At 75,000 miles across, Saturn is nearly 10 times larger than Earth and the second-largest planet in the solar system, behind its neighbor, Jupiter. It is called a gas giant, meaning it is really big and made mostly of gas: in this case, hydrogen and helium. The deeper you get into Saturn, the greater the pressure and heat. How bad could it be, you ask? Bad enough that hydrogen exists as a liquid metal near the planet's core. In other words, don't expect astronauts to plant flags down there anytime soon. One Saturn year lasts about 30 Earth years, and one Saturn day is, well …

2. THE LENGTH OF A SATURNIAN DAY IS A MYSTERY.

The spacecraft Cassini has been operating in the Saturnian system for 13 years doing extraordinary science—and yet the length of a day on Saturn remains elusive. Is it 10 hours and 39 minutes, as suggested by data from Voyager 2 in 1981? Or is it 10 hours and 47 minutes, as Cassini data suggested when the spacecraft first arrived at Saturn in 2004? Or is it 10 hours 33 minutes, as later data suggested?

The problem is that Saturn keeps giving new answers. There are no continents spinning around for scientists to set a stopwatch to; cloud orbits are unreliable; and measurements of the planet's radio radiation and magnetic fields have proven equally frustrating. As Cassini completes its final orbits, it is collecting up-close Saturn data that might finally answer the question. No matter the number to be determined, 10 hours and change is a tremendous speed for a planet of Saturn's size to be spinning, and it affects even the planet's shape; its poles are flattened as a result of its rotation.

3. SATURN HAS SEASONS.

Visiting space aliens would never confuse Saturn with Earth, though the two planets do have one interesting shared characteristic: both are tilted to similar degrees relative to the equator of the Sun. Earth is tilted at 23.5 degrees; Saturn is tilted at 26.7 degrees. Axial tilt is the reason we experience seasons, and Saturn is no different (though the leaves there don't change color due to a pronounced lack of trees). Saturn experienced summer solstice four months ago, marking its maximum axial tilt toward the Sun and making it midsummer in Saturn's northern hemisphere. It will reach Autumn equinox in May 2025.

4. HERE'S MORE ABOUT CASSINI, NASA'S MOST AMBITIOUS PLANETARY MISSION EVER.

After 20 years in space—seven years en route to Saturn and 13 years in orbit around it—the Cassini spacecraft is nearly out of fuel for its thrusters. Rather than enter a permanent orbit around Saturn as an artificial satellite, or sent on an intercept course with Uranus, both risky endeavors, Cassini will burn up like a shooting star when it plunges into the depths of Saturn on September 15. For the past six months, Cassini has been taking daring dives through Saturn's rings in a series of 22 orbits, the last of which will send it on an impact course with the planet. As it speeds into the gas giant, it will return data on the composition of Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini's death mission will protect the moons Enceladus and Titan from contamination by Earth germs. 

5. ENJOY TERRIBLE WEATHER? YOU'D LOVE LIFE ON SATURN.

"Saturn has these absolutely massive storms once every few decades," says Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, "and we actually got to see one of them happen because we've been there so long." Scientists already knew about the storms from Earth-based observation, but close-up study made possible by Cassini gave new insights on how they work and what they do. "These massive storms actually pull up a lot of material from deeper in the atmosphere—stuff that we can't usually see or measure," she tells Mental Floss. This material consists of gases from deep within the planet's atmosphere. Saturn's storms cause dramatic temperature changes, and even have lightning. "If you were somehow managing to stand inside of Saturn's atmosphere, some of the storms would feel quite familiar, and some of these longer-lived storms, these vortexes, are somewhat related to a hurricane."

6. IT HAS A CORE, BUT DETAILS ABOUT IT ARE HAZY.

Saturn has a rocky core surrounded by liquid metallic hydrogen, though the finer details of the planet's interior remain elusive. At Jupiter, NASA's Juno mission is hard at work determining the nature of that planet's core. The 22 proximal orbits of Cassini's "grand finale" have a configuration similar to those of Juno, and scientists hope that data from these orbits can be used with Juno data to learn more about Saturn's interior. "The general picture that there's rocky stuff down there, probably metallic hydrogen, isn't really going to change," says Hörst. "The details of exactly how it looks and where its phase changes are—those types of things—will hopefully be worked out a bit more before Cassini ends."

7. YOU CAN SEE SATURN FROM YOUR BACKYARD.

When the skies are conducive to viewing, even a modest telescope can allow you to see Saturn. It will look just like you imagine: a ball surrounded by a distinctive ring structure. It will even "feel" three dimensional (because it is, of course) in a way that Jupiter or Mars will not. Your telescope might even allow you to spot Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Sky & Telescope offers a guide to help you see Saturn in all its glory.

8. ITS MOONS MIGHT BE YOUNGER THAN SOME DINOSAUR FOSSILS.

Earth's moon is about 4.5 billion years old. Saturn's moons are mere infants in comparison: possibly as young as 100 million years old. Matija Cuk, a research scientist at SETI, modeled the orbital evolution of the Saturn system, and found that the orbital shifts of the moons over time, and the gravitational influences of the moons over each other, suggest origins when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. "If calculations predict that something happened in the past and you don't see it, maybe it never happened," he tells Mental Floss. One scenario sees a different inner moon system whose orbits resonated and eventually crossed, causing the moons to collide. The current system of moons then assembled from the debris.

Those rings around Saturn might not be very old, either, and might be related to the young moons. "The rings might be pieces of broken up moons," he says. "You figure out how old the rings are and you can figure out the last time the moons were broken up and when some of them were put back together."

9. THERE'S A GOOD CHANCE THAT LIFE EXISTS ON THOSE MOONS.

Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, possesses a global saltwater ocean surrounded by an icy crust. That ocean is in direct contact with a rocky core. Saltwater touching rock is exciting because it allows for interesting chemistry—including the sort that might be conducive to life. Adding to the excitement are hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, spewing water, minerals, and nutrients heated by geothermal activity. Better yet, that ocean is being blasted into space through massive geysers. This means NASA can get to the water, sample it, and hopefully, find life.

Titan, another moon of Saturn, also possesses the right stuff for life—and not boring old liquid water life, either, but something wholly alien: a methane-based life form. Key to such life would be the presence of the molecule acrylonitrile, now known to exist on Titan. The European Space Agency landed the Huygens probe on Titan in 2005, and Cassini later discovered several massive liquid methane lakes on that world. The next step is to send a submarine there and get to work.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
iStock
arrow
Space
Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
iStock
iStock

The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on October 10, 2013.
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
arrow
Space
10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios