Saturn is the sixth planet from Sol and the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Saturn is named
after the Roman god Saturn, equated to the Greek Cronus (the Titan father of Zeus), the Babylonian Ninurta and the Hindu Shani. Saturn's astronomical symbol (♄) represents the Roman god's sickle.

Saturn, along with Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, is a gas giant. Together, these four planets are sometimes referred to as the Jovian planets, meaning "Jupiter-like". Saturn has an average radius about 9 times larger than the Earth's. While only 1/8 the average density of Earth, due to its larger volume, Saturn's mass is just over 95 times greater than Earth's.

Because of Saturn's large mass and resulting gravitation, the conditions produced on Saturn are extreme if compared to Earth. The interior of Saturn is probably composed of a core of iron, nickel, silicon and oxygen compounds, surrounded by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen, an intermediate layer of liquid hydrogen and liquid helium and finally, an outer gaseous layer.

Electrical current within the metallic-hydrogen layer is thought to give rise to Saturn's planetary magnetic field, which is slightly weaker than Earth's and approximately one-twentieth the strength of Jupiter's. The outer atmosphere is generally bland in appearance, although long-lived features can appear. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h.

Saturn has a ring system that is divided into nine continuous and three discontinuous main rings (arcs), consisting mostly of ice particles with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust. Sixty-two known moons orbit the planet; fifty-three are officially named. This does not include the hundreds of "moonlets" within the rings. Titan, Saturn's largest and the Solar System's second largest moon, is larger than the planet Mercury and is the only moon in the Solar System to possess a significant atmosphere.

Physical characteristics

Due to a combination of its lower density, rapid rotation and fluid state, Saturn is an oblate spheroid; that is, it is flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator. Its equatorial and polar radii differ by almost 10%—60,268 km versus 54,364 km. The other gas planets are also oblate, but to a lesser extent. Saturn is the only planet of the Solar System that is less dense than water (about 30% less). Although Saturn's core is considerably denser than water, the average specific density of the planet is 0.69 g/cm3 due to the gaseous atmosphere. Saturn is only 95 Earth masses, compared to Jupiter, which is 318 times the mass of the Earth but only about 20% larger than Saturn.

Internal Structure

Though there is no direct information about Saturn's internal structure, it is thought that its interior is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded mostly by hydrogen and helium. The rocky core is similar in composition to the Earth, but more dense. This is surrounded by a thicker liquid metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a liquid hydrogen/helium layer and a gaseous atmosphere in the outermost 1000 km. Traces of various volatiles are also present. The core region is estimated to be about 9–22 times the mass of the Earth. Saturn has a very hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at the core, and it radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Most of this extra energy is generated by the Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism (slow gravitational compression), but this alone may not be sufficient to explain Saturn's heat production. It is proposed that an additional mechanism might be at play whereby Saturn generates some of its heat through the "raining out" of droplets of helium deep in its interior, thus releasing heat by friction as they fall down through the lighter hydrogen. The gases which Saturn is mostly made of change to liquid in Saturn's internal structure, but the change is very gradual. The interior is estimated to be about 25,000 km across.


The outer atmosphere of Saturn consists of 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium. Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, phosphine and methane have also been detected. The upper clouds on Saturn are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to be composed of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. The atmosphere of Saturn is significantly deficient in helium relative to the abundance of the elements in the Sun.

The quantity of elements heavier than helium are not known precisely, but the proportions are assumed to match the primordial abundances from the formation of the Solar System. The total mass of these elements is estimated to be 19–31 times the mass of the Earth, with a significant fraction located in Saturn's core region.

Cloud Layers

Saturn's atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter's (the nomenclature is the same), but Saturn's bands are much fainter and are also much wider near the equator. At depth, extending for 10 km and with a temperature of −23 °C, is a layer made up of water ice. Above this layer is probably a layer of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, which extends for another 50 km and is approximately −93 °C. Eighty kilometers above that layer are ammonia ice clouds, where the temperatures are roughly −153 °C. Near the top of the atmosphere, extending for some 200 km to 270 km above the visible ammonia clouds, are gaseous hydrogen and helium.Saturn's winds are easily among the Solar System's fastest. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn's finer cloud patterns were not observed until the Voyager flybys. Since then, Earth-based telescopy has improved to the point where regular observations can be made.

Saturn's usually bland atmosphere occasionally exhibits long-lived ovals and other features common on Jupiter. In 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope observed an enormous white cloud near Saturn's equator which was not present during the Voyager encounters and in 1994, another, smaller storm was observed. The 1990 storm was an example of a Great White Spot, a unique but short-lived phenomenon which occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere's summer solstice. Previous Great White Spots were observed in 1876, 1903, 1933 and 1960, with the 1933 storm being the most famous. If the periodicity is maintained, another storm will occur in about 2020.

In recent images from the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn's northern hemisphere appears a bright blue, similar to Uranus, as can be seen in the image below. This blue color cannot currently be observed from Earth, because Saturn's rings are currently blocking its northern hemisphere. The color is most likely caused by Rayleigh scattering.

Infrared imaging has shown that Saturn's south pole has a warm polar vortex, the only example of such a phenomenon known to date in the Solar System. Whereas temperatures on Saturn are normally −185 °C, temperatures on the vortex often reach as high as −122 °C, believed to be the warmest spot on Saturn.

North pole hexagonal cloud pattern

A persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north polar vortex in the atmosphere at about 78°N was first noted in the Voyager images. Unlike the north pole, HST imaging of the south polar region indicates the presence of a jet stream, but no strong polar vortex nor any hexagonal standing wave. NASA reported in November 2006 that the Cassini spacecraft observed a "hurricane-like" storm locked to the south pole that had a clearly defined eyewall. This observation is particularly notable because eyewall clouds had not previously been seen on any planet other than Earth. For example, images from the Galileo spacecraft did not show an eyewall in the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.[51]

The straight sides of the northern polar hexagon are each approximately 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long, making them larger than the diameter of the Earth. The entire structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, the same period as that of the planet's radio emissions, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn's interior. The hexagonal feature does not shift in longitude like the other clouds in the visible atmosphere.

The pattern's origin is a matter of much speculation. Most astronomers seem to think it was caused by some standing-wave pattern in the atmosphere; but the hexagon might be a novel aurora. Polygonal shapes have been replicated in spinning buckets of fluid in a laboratory.


Saturn has an intrinsic magnetic field that has a simple, symmetric shape—a magnetic dipole. Its strength at the equator—0.2 gauss (20 µT)—is approximately one twentieth than that of the field around Jupiter and slightly weaker than Earth's magnetic field. As a result Saturn's magnetosphere is much smaller than Jupiter's and extends slightly beyond the orbit of Titan. Most probably, the magnetic field is generated similarly to that of

Photo of Saturn by Hubble showing both polar aurorae.

Jupiter—by currents in the metallic-hydrogen layer, which is called a metallic-hydrogen dynamo. Similarly to those of other planets, this magnetosphere is efficient at deflecting the solar wind particles from the Sun. The moon Titan orbits within the outer part of Saturn's magnetosphere and contributes plasma from the ionized particles in Titan's outer atmosphere. When Voyager 2 entered the magnetosphere, the solar wind pressure was high and the magnetosphere extended only 19 Saturn radii, or 1.1 million km (712,000 mi), although it enlarged within several hours, and remained so for about three days. Saturn's magnetosphere, like Earth's, produces aurorae.

Orbit and rotation

The average distance between Saturn and the Sun is over 1,400,000,000 km (9 AU). With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days (or about 29½years), to finish one revolution around the Sun. The elliptical orbit of Saturn is inclined 2.48° relative to the orbital plane of the Earth. Because of an eccentricity of 0.056, the distance between Saturn and the Sun varies by approximately 155,000,000 km between perihelion and aphelion, which are the nearest and most distant points of the planet along its orbital path, respectively.

The visible features on Saturn rotate at different rates depending on latitude and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions (as in Jupiter's case): System I has a period of 10 h 14 min 00 s (844.3°/d) and encompasses the Equatorial Zone, which extends from the northern edge of the South Equatorial Belt to the southern edge of the North Equatorial Belt. All other Saturnian latitudes have been assigned a rotation period of 10 h 38 min 25.4 s (810.76°/d), which is System II. System III, based on radio emissions from the planet in the period of the Voyager flybys, has a period of 10 h 39 min 22.4 s (810.8°/d); because it is very close to System II, it has largely superseded it.

A precise value for the rotation period of the interior remains elusive. While approaching Saturn in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft found that the radio rotation period of Saturn had increased appreciably, to approximately 10 h 45 m 45 s (±36 s). The cause of the change is unknown—it was thought to be due to a movement of the radio source to a different latitude inside Saturn, with a different rotational period, rather than because of a change in Saturn's rotation.

Later, in March 2007, it was found that the rotation of the radio emissions did not trace the rotation of the planet, but rather is produced by convection of the plasma disc, which is dependent also on other factors besides the planet's rotation. It was reported that the variance in measured rotation periods may be caused by geyser activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The water vapor emitted into Saturn's orbit by this activity becomes charged and "weighs down" Saturn's magnetic field, slowing its rotation slightly relative to the rotation of the planet. At the time it was stated that there is no currently known method of determining the rotation rate of Saturn's core.

The latest estimate of Saturn's rotation based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes was reported in September 2007 is 10 hours, 32 minutes, 35 seconds.

Planetary rings


Titan, as seen from inside Saturns rings by the Explorer III probe

Saturn is probably best known for its system of planetary rings, which makes it the most visually remarkable object in the solar system. The rings extend from 6,630 km to 120,700 km above Saturn's equator, average approximately 20 meters in thickness and are composed of 93% water ice with a smattering of tholin impurities and 7% amorphous carbon. The particles that make up the rings range in size from specks of dust up to 10 m. There are two main theories regarding the origin of the rings. One theory is that the rings are remnants of a destroyed moon of Saturn. The second theory is that the rings are left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed. Some ice in the central rings comes from the moon Enceladus' ice volcanoes.

Beyond the main rings at a distance of 12 million km from the planet is the sparse Phoebe ring, which is tilted at an angle of 27° to the other rings and, like Phoebe, orbits in retrograde fashion. Some of the moons of Saturn, including Pan and Prometheus, act as shepherd moons to keep the planetary rings stable and prevent them from escaping. Pan and Atlas cause weak, linear density waves in Saturn's rings that have yielded more reliable calculations of their masses.

The age of these planetary rings is probably hundreds of millions of years old (in contrast to previous thoughts

The rings of Saturn (imaged here by Cassini in 2007) are the most conspicuous in the Solar System.

that the rings formed alongside the planet when it formed billions of years ago) and their fate include spiraling inward towards the planet, or the boulders forming the rings colliding with each other and disappearing.

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