Saturn: All the facts you need to know about the ringed planet

Saturn, with its spectacular rings, is one of the most easily-recognizable objects in our Solar System but how much do we know about it?

Below we cover all the facts you need to know about the planet Saturn and pick out some mind-blowing images. Plus, take the quiz at the end to see how much you know!

How far away is Saturn?

Saturn is the 6th planet from the Sun. Depending on where it is in its orbit, it lies at a distance of between 1.3 billion km and 1.5 billion km from the Sun.

From the Earth, the distance to Saturn is between 1.2 billion km and 1.7 billion km, depending on the planet’s’ positions in their respective orbits.

How big is Saturn?

Saturn is the second-largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Its surface area is 83 times that of Earth, with its volume 764 times and mass 95 times.

Its radius is 60,268 km, which is 9.5 times that of Earth. Its equatorial Diameter‎ is ‎120,536 km and polar diameter‎ ‎108,728 km.

saturn b&w
NASA’s Cassini photographs Saturn

What is it like on Saturn?

It’s cold, with a temperature of −185 °C, and windy, with winds blowing at up to 1,800 km/h (1,100 mph). To give a point of comparison, a Category 5 hurricane on Earth (the highest classification in the scale) consists of storms with sustained winds exceeding 251 km/h (156 mph). It has a cloudy and stormy atmosphere.

Being made of gas, Saturn does not have a definite surface like Earth so you cannot walk land on it. This doesn’t mean that a spacecraft would just be able to fly through it though – he extreme climate deep inside the planet would crush and destroy a metal ship.

Despite its size, one day on Saturn is relatively short as it spins incredibly fast and takes just 10.7 hours for the planet to rotate fully.

What is Saturn made of?

Saturn is a “gas giant”, like Jupiter, and is predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium.

It probably has a solid core composed of iron-nickel and rock, but we are not 100% sure yet.

What are Saturn’s rings?

Saturn’s distinctive rings are made up of 93% ice and 7% carbon. They span a huge distance – up to 120,700 km outward, but are extremely thin with an average thickness of just 10 meters.

There are two main theories regarding the origin of the rings. The first is that the rings are the remnants of a destroyed moon. The second is that the rings are left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed.

saturn rings
Hi-res images of Saturn’s rings taken by Cassini

Does Saturn have moons?

Saturn has 62 known moons, the largest of which is Titan, which is also the second largest moon in the Solar System (the largest is Jupiter’s biggest moon, Ganymede). Titan is the only moon in the Solar System to have an atmosphere of its own.

Some of Saturn’s moons work to confine its rings and prevent them from spreading out.

Titan above Saturn’s rings

How to see Saturn in the sky

Saturn is visible to the naked eye and is the fifth brightest object in the sky, so relatively easy to spot. It has a pale yellow appearance (due to ammonia crystals in its atmosphere).

To be able to distinguish Saturn’s rings you would generally need astronomy binoculars or a telescope.

What missions has NASA sent to Saturn?

Saturn was first visited by NASA’s Pioneer 11 in 1979. Then again in 1979, the Voyager 1 craft conducted a flyby and Voyager 2 visited in 1981.

The next major mission wasn’t until Cassini in 2004. Cassini remained in the Saturnian system until 2017 when it crashed (on purpose) into Saturn. It spent 13 years, 76 days in the Saturn system.

In addition, the European Space Agency’s Huygens landed on Titan. The probe provided a detailed study of Titan’s atmosphere during a 2 hour and 27-minute descent.

How long does it take to get to Saturn?

The Cassini spacecraft took 6 years, 261 days to travel from Earth to Saturn. Pioneer 11 took six and a half years, Voyager 1 took three years and two months, Voyager 2 took four years.

The variations are due to technological differences and the route taken – i.e. what else did the ships do on their way there.

saturn mimas
The moon Mimas appears as a tiny dot in front of Saturn

Where does the name “Saturn” come from?

Like the other planets in the Solar System, Saturn is named after a Roman god – the Roman god of agriculture, in fact.

When was Saturn first discovered?

It is visible to the naked eye and so will have been seen throughout human history, but Saturn was first recorded by humans in the 8th century BC by the Assyrians. Galileo was then the first to observe the planet with a telescope in 1610.

Is there life on Saturn?

There is almost certainly not life on Saturn – its temperatures, pressures, radiation levels, and materials are too extreme for life as we know it to adapt to – but there is a possibility of life on some of its moons.

Titan has water present and also certain elements have been discovered in its upper atmosphere that is regarded as precursors for life.

The moon Enceladus may also have life in warm underground seas. This revelation was made when Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft analyzed a plume of spray that shot up from the moon and in it they discovered hydrogen which could potentially support the life of microbes on the seafloor.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus – which may harbor life in its warm oceans

Five amazing facts about Saturn

  1. It takes 29.4 years to orbit the Sun
  2. It’s made of gas and does not have a solid surface
  3. Its rings are made of ice and are only about 20m thick – yet stretch out more than 120,700 km from the planet
  4. It has 62 moons – two of which are strong candidates for harboring life
  5. Its surface area is 83 times that of Earth

Further information

To learn more about Saturn, check out these great resources:

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