The Cassini space probe will begin to spiral to its death tomorrow after giving us some of the most spectacular images of the planet Saturn - so this seems like quite a fitting Sunday Science post. More on Cassini later.
Saturn is one of the most recognisable planets in our Solar System thanks to its characteristic rings, which are made up of chunks of rock and ice.
It's not the only planet to have rings (Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune do too) - but it is the second largest planet circling the Sun and farthest planet from Earth that can be observed by the unaided human eye.
What is Saturn?
Saturn is a gas giant planet, which means it is big and, um, mainly made up of gas. Just like Jupiter (another gas giant), Saturn is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium gases.
The centre of the planet is also remarkably similar to Jupiter's core, although it is slightly smaller. The core is a dense mix of ice, water, rock and other compounds, which are enveloped by liquid metallic hydrogen.
The days on Saturn are short (believed to be 10.7 Earth hours - but this is difficult to measure) but the years are long as the planet takes 29 Earth years to orbit the Sun.
Saturn also has seasons, just like on Earth, thanks to its tilt with respect to the Sun.
And here's a fun fact - Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that's less dense than water. So, you could float it your bath tub - if you could find a big enough one!
Is there anything interesting there?
Oh yes. As mentioned, the Cassini spacecraft has been whizzing around the planet for 13 years. While the images are stunning and have revealed more detailed information about Saturn - there have been some interesting developments in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
One of Saturn's (confirmed) 53 moons - Enceladus - has a global saltwater ocean under its icy crust. Cassini has had Enceladus in its sights for some time - it first detected signs of an icy water plume in early 2005. Could the moon harbour life near hydrothermal vents? It's one of several ways life could exist on Saturn's moons.
Another one of Saturn's moons - Titan - has also just been added to the list of candidates for supporting life in the Solar System. And two other Saturnian moons - Dione and Tethys - could also be hiding liquid under their icy exteriors.
Extra reading and watching
Saturn is a beautiful - and much photographed - planet. Check out NASA's image gallery here and you can see Cassini's images here.
Here's an extensive list of facts about Saturn and a lovely 4K resolution video from Astrum:
What is Sunday Science?
Hello. I’m the freelance writer who gets tech. I have two degrees in Physics and, during my studies, I became increasingly frustrated with the complicated language used to describe some outstanding scientific principles. Language should aid our understanding — in science, it often feels like a barrier.
So, I want to simplify these science sayings and this blog series “Sunday Science” gives a quick, no-nonsense definition of the complex-sounding scientific terms you often hear, but may not completely understand.
If there’s a scientific term or topic you’d like me to tackle in my next post, fire an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. If you want to sign up to our weekly newsletter, click here.
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