Photo courtesy of National Air and Space Museum

by Ellen McCarron and Katie Dixon

Saturn, the sixth closest planet to the Sun, is the second largest planet in the Solar System. Saturn's diameter is about 120,000 km, almost 10 times that of the Earth. Saturn, which is about 1,277,400,000 km away from the Earth, can be seen from Earth with the naked eye, but its rings cannot. Saturn moves around the Sun in an elliptical or oval-shaped path, taking over 29 Earth years to complete the orbit, and rotates on its axis every 10 hours, 39 minutes and 24 seconds.

The atmosphere of Saturn is almost entirely hydrogen and helium. Winds on this large gas planet blow at very high speeds, reaching speeds up to 1800 km per hour, due to Saturn's fast rotation. The winds blow mostly in the easterly direction. The strongest winds are found near the equator, and their speed decreases at the poles and high latitudes. Saturn's very fast rotation causes its poles to be flattened out and its equator to bulge. Saturn has a very strong magnetic field surrounding it because the pressurized hydrogen in Saturn's atmosphere produces electric currents, just like on Jupiter.

Saturn has 18 moons, also known as satellites; before the first Voyager spacecraft, astronomers believed that Saturn had only 11 moons. Titian is the largest of Saturn's moons; it is the second largest satellite in the Solar System. Titan's surface can't be seen by any spacecraft; but it looks like it is made of rock and ice. Minas, Enceladues, Tethys, Doine and Rhea, 5 other moons, are almost round in shape and are made mostly of water and ice.

Saturn is encircled by 7 major rings and an extensive system of a 1000 individual ringlets that are very thin, narrow, and flat with few clear gaps in the rings. There are gaps between some rings, while other rings seem to be braided together; moons within the rings result in the gaps that are found between some rings. The rings are made of thousands of tiny ice bits. The particles in the rings closer to the planet orbit the planet at a faster speed than the particles in the rings farther from the planet. Jupiter and Uranus are the only other planets in the Solar System known to have rings. Their rings are much fainter than those around Saturn.

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