From a billion miles out, with the sun looking smaller and smaller by the minute, here are some facts about the sixth planet for the sixth night of Chanukah!
1) In the same elite club as Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, Saturn’s moon Titan is bigger than the planet Mercury. It’s the only moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere. Its atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen and methane and extends more than ten times further from Titan’s surface than Earth’s does from its.
2) Ah yes, the rings. Saturn’s rings are the biggest in the solar system, and are made up almost entirely of chunks of water ice. It seems more and more things in the solar system are are being found that are.
3) In fact, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is covered with a tremendous sheet of ice, with one of the biggest oceans of liquid water underneath. Sometimes some of that ocean erupts through the ice. Enceladus is pretty small, only about 300 miles across — a tenth of the size of Titan. On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life, so there is a lot of optimism that there could be life on Enceladus, too, as well as Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
4) On the subject of moons and rings, Saturn’s second largest moon, Rhea, might have rings. These would be the first rings found around a moon.
5) Saturn has been visited by four probes from earth: Pioneer 11 in 1973; Voyager 1 & 2 in 1980 and 1981; and Cassini-Hyugens in 2004. After flying through the Saturn system, Pioneer 11 and Voyager went on their way out of the solar system, Voyager 2 visited Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 didn’t make it to Uranus and Neptune because, after it left Jupiter, it was put on a trajectory that allowed it to get a closer view of Titan. Meanwhile, Cassini is still exploring Saturn, its rings, and its moons.
6) Saturn’s atmosphere has cloud bands, like Jupiter’s, but they’re not as dramatically colored because they’re made mostly of ammonia. These clouds have some of the fastest winds in the solar system, over 1000 miles per hour.
7) The Voyager spacecraft photographed a huge, hexagonal cloud pattern on Saturn’s north pole (see below), bigger than the earth, which was later confirmed by Cassini.
8) A huge storm that wrapped entirely around Saturn’s northern hemisphere was seen by Cassini in 2010.