Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest. In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of agriculture. The associated Greek god, Cronus, was the son of Uranus and Gaia and the father of Zeus (Jupiter). Saturn is the root of the English word "Saturday".
Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. Early observations of Saturn were complicated by the fact that the Earth passes through the plane of Saturn’s rings every few years as Saturn moves in its orbit.
It was not until 1659 that Christiaan Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn’s rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus. It was first visited by Pioneer 11 in 1979 and later by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini, now on its way, will arrive in 2004.
Saturn’s ring system makes the planet one of the most beautiful objects in the solar system. The rings are split into a number of different parts, which include the bright A and B rings and a fainter C ring. The ring system has various gaps. The most notable gap is the Cassini Division, which separates the A and B rings. Giovanni Cassini discovered this division in 1675.
The Encke Division, which splits the A Ring, is named after Johann Encke, who discovered it in 1837. Space probes have shown that the main rings are really made up of a large number of narrow ringlets. The origin of the rings is obscure. It is thought that the rings may have been formed from larger moons that were shattered by impacts of comets and meteoroids.
The ring composition is not known for certain, but the rings do show a significant amount of water. They may be composed of icebergs and/or snowballs from a few centimeters to a few meters in size. Much of the elaborate structure of some of the rings is due to the gravitational effects of nearby satellites. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the relationship between the F-ring and two small moons that shepherd the ring material.
Radial, spoke-like features in the broad B-ring were also found by the Voyagers. The features are believed to be composed of fine, dust-size particles. The spokes were observed to form and dissipate in the time-lapse images taken by the Voyagers. While electrostatic charging may create spokes by levitating dust particles above the ring, the exact cause of the formation of the spokes is not well understood.
Saturn’s rings are extraordinarily thin: though they’re 250,000 km or more in diameter they’re less than one kilometer thick. Despite their impressive appearance, there’s really very little material in the rings—if the rings were compressed into a single body it would be no more than 100 km across.
Saturn’s interior is hot (12000 K at the core) and Saturn radiates more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Most of the extra energy is generated by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism as in Jupiter. But this may not be sufficient to explain Saturn’s luminosity; some additional mechanism may be at work, perhaps the “raining out” of helium deep in Saturn’s interior.
The origin of the rings of Saturn is unknown. Though they may have had rings since their formation, the ring systems are not stable and must be regenerated by ongoing processes, probably the breakup of larger satellites.
When it is in the nighttime sky, Saturn is easily visible to the unaided eye. Though it is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, it is easy to identify as a planet because it doesn’t “twinkle” like the stars do. The rings and the larger satellites are visible with a small astronomical telescope.
The wind blows at high speeds on Saturn. Near the equator, it reaches velocities of 500 meters a second (1,100 miles an hour). The wind blows mostly in an easterly direction. The strongest winds are found near the equator and velocity falls off uniformly at higher latitudes. At latitudes greater than 35 degrees, winds alternate east and west as latitude increases.
Saturn has 18 named satellites and more than a dozen of newly reported satellites that have been given provisional designations until they are verified and named.