View from Mars Hill: Saturn: Alluring, familiar and well-positioned

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Spacecraft in the 20th century revealed that what astronomers thought of as a few major rings around Saturn are actually thousands of thin, tenuous ones. They collectively span 275,000 kilometers (170,000 miles) — which is 70% of the distance from Earth to the moon — but are less than ½ mile thick. While political satirist Mark Russell supported the hypothesis that the rings “are composed entirely of lost airline luggage,” astronomers know that water ice is the main ingredient.

Like Jupiter, Saturn has an equatorial bulge, meaning its width (diameter at the equator, which is about 120,000 kilometers (74,400 miles) is greater than its height (diameter at the poles, which is about 108,000 kilometers (67,000 miles). It is also unique in that its density is so low that it would float in water, if one could build a bathtub that big.

Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture and is the namesake of Saturday. Like Jupiter, it is comprised of about 75% hydrogen, 25% helium and only traces of other elements. Its core is solid and perhaps the size of Earth. The rotation of this core creates a strong magnetic field that, like that of Earth’s, interacts with charged particles emanating from the sun to create aurorae.

Due to intense heat created in Saturn’s interior, the planet radiates more energy into space than it receives from the sun, which is about 885 million miles away — more than nine times the distance from Earth to the sun. Because of this distance, sunlight that takes eight minutes to reach Earth needs another hour and 10 minutes to arrive at Saturn. Its greater distance from the sun also means that one Saturn year equals 29 ½ Earth years (nearly 11,000 Earth days).

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