Vol.1, No.6

Saturn information for kids

Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and one of the largest in our solar system. Discover some interesting facts about Saturn.

Conception of the planet Saturn
Photo Credit: George Toubalis
Of all the planets in our solar system, Saturn is the most interesting and unique. It is one of the biggest planets in size. The yellow planet with the wide, flat rings is the sixth planet from the sun and sits between Jupiter and Uranus. Recent exploratory missions to the planet have revealed many interesting features that will be of interest to scientists for years to come.

Saturn is the second largest planet behind Jupiter with a fast rotation and one of the longest orbits around the sun. It lies at a distance of 887,000,000 miles from the sun and is 74,900 miles wide in diameter. Saturn orbits the sun every 29 years. Saturn is tilted 27 degrees on its axis and rotates fairly fast as it orbits the sun, completing one rotation in 11 hours. Because of its fast rotation, the poles on Saturn are flat. Earth, by comparison, takes 24 hours to complete a rotation around its axis and takes one year to rotate around the sun. Saturn is 75 times larger than Earth. Saturn is also the least dense of all the planets in the solar system and is less dense than water that it could even float on top of water!

There are a total of seven rings orbiting around Saturn. The three main rings are called the A, B, and C rings. Saturn's rings are formed out of smaller ringlets and are separated by gaps which are named after the astronomer who discovered them. The largest gap is the Cassini Division, which is located between the A and B rings. The main gap within the A ring is called the Encke Division. The Voyager missions in 1980 and 1981 have revealed other characteristics of the rings to scientists. For example, we now know that the rings consist of ice and dust.

At least 30 moons orbit around Saturn. Six of Saturn's moons are as large as Earth's moon. Six of Saturn's moons (Mimas-Tethys, Enceladus-Dione, Titan-Hyperion) interact as pairs to maintain the gravitational place of the rings. The furthest moon away from Saturn is Phoebe at a distance of 12,952 kilometers. The largest moon orbiting Saturn is called Titan. Titan has a radius of 2575 kilometers and has the largest mass of any of Saturn's moons. The brightest moon is Enceladus, which is also the sixth largest moon on Saturn and is made almost entirely of ice. The first moon was discovered in 1655 by Christaan Huygens.

Saturn is a gas giant. The atmosphere of Saturn is comprised entirely of gas. Helium and hydrogen are the main components, and there are trace amounts of methane and ammonia. Ammonia is responsible for the yellow color of the Saturn. The colorful clouds fuel storms on Saturn, and some of these storms can have wind speeds that are greater than 1100 miles per hour. Every 30 years, a Great White Spot can be seen on Saturn after our summer. This white spot occurs because a massive storm is taking place on the planet's surface. The surface of Saturn is covered in liquid hydrogen and helium. The liquid forms of hydrogen and helium conduct electrical currents that contribute to the planet's magnetic field. The inner core consists of solid rock and ice. The average temperature on Saturn is -218o F. The surface of the planet is very hot, and becomes colder as you gain altitude into the upper layers of the atmosphere.

Named after the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn has been known since ancient times. Saturn was first observed by in the seventeenth century by Galileo, who noted the odd bulges on the sides by telescope in 1610. It was not until 1659 that Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens figured out that rings circled the planet. Astronomers later discovered that Saturn was not surrounded by single giant ring, but by many rings, and this was eventually confirmed during the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions in 1980 and 1981. Giovanni Cassini discovered the first gap between the A and B rings in the seventeenth century, while in 1837, Johann Encke discovered that a gap existed within the A ring. Both these observations were confirmed by the Voyager missions. Recently, NASA commissioned a mission to explore the entire planet of Saturn and return details regarding Saturn's moon, rings, gravitational field, and atmosphere. In 2004, the Cassini landed on Titan and released a probe called the Huygens. As the information becomes available, more about the exact composition of Saturn will be known to scientists.

Since the seventeenth century, astronomers have collected quite a bit of information about Saturn. Yet much about Saturn still remains a mystery, and many more missions will be needed to give us a complete picture of this majestic planet.