Saturn's interior is thought to be composed of a rocky core, surrounded by a deep layer of
metallic hydrogen, an intermediate layer of
liquid hydrogen and
liquid helium, and finally, a gaseous outer layer. Saturn has a pale yellow hue due to
ammonia crystals in its upper atmosphere. An
electrical current within the metallic hydrogen layer is thought to give rise to Saturn's planetary
magnetic field, which is weaker than Earth's, but which has a
magnetic moment 580 times that of Earth due to Saturn's larger size. Saturn's magnetic field strength is around one-twentieth of Jupiter's. The outer
atmosphere is generally bland and lacking in contrast, although long-lived features can appear.
Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 kilometres per hour (1,100 miles per hour).
The planet has a prominent
ring system, which is composed mainly of ice particles, with a smaller amount of rocky debris and
dust. At least
146 moons are known to orbit the planet, of which 63 are officially named; this does not include the hundreds of
moonlets in its rings.
Titan, Saturn's largest moon and the second largest in the Solar System, is larger (while less massive) than the planet
Mercury and is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere.
The Romans named the seventh day of the week
Saturday, Sāturni diēs ("Saturn's Day"), for the planet Saturn.
Saturn is a
gas giant composed predominantly of hydrogen and helium. It lacks a definite surface, though it is likely to have a solid core. Saturn's rotation causes it to have the shape of an
oblate spheroid; that is, it is
flattened at the
bulges at its
equator. Its equatorial radius is more than 10% larger than its polar radius: 60,268 km versus 54,364 km. Jupiter,
Neptune, the other giant planets in the Solar System, are also oblate but to a lesser extent. The combination of the bulge and rotation rate means that the effective surface gravity along the equator, 8.96 m/s2, is 74% of what it is at the poles and is lower than the surface gravity of Earth. However, the equatorial
escape velocity of nearly 36 km/s is much higher than that of Earth.
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 atmosphere. Jupiter has 318 times
Earth's mass, and Saturn is 95 times Earth's mass. Together, Jupiter and Saturn hold 92% of the total planetary mass in the Solar System.
Despite consisting mostly of hydrogen and helium, most of Saturn's mass is not in the
gasphase, because hydrogen becomes a
non-ideal liquid when the density is above 0.01 g/cm3, which is reached at a radius containing 99.9% of Saturn's mass. The temperature, pressure, and density inside Saturn all rise steadily toward the core, which causes hydrogen to be a metal in the deeper layers.
Standard planetary models suggest that the interior of Saturn is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded by hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of various
volatiles. Analysis of the distortion shows that Saturn is substantially more centrally condensed than
Jupiter and therefore contains a significantly larger amount of material denser than
hydrogen near its centre. Saturn's central regions contain about 50% hydrogen by mass, while Jupiter's contain approximately 67% hydrogen.
This core is similar in composition to Earth, but is more dense. The examination of Saturn's
gravitational moment, in combination with physical models of the interior, has allowed constraints to be placed on the mass of Saturn's core. In 2004, scientists estimated that the core must be 9–22 times the mass of Earth, which corresponds to a diameter of about 25,000 km. However, measurements of Saturn's rings suggest a much more diffuse core with a mass equal to about 17 Earths and a radius equal to around 60% of Saturn's entire radius. This is surrounded by a thicker liquid
metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a liquid layer of helium-saturated
molecular hydrogen that gradually transitions to a gas with increasing altitude. The outermost layer spans 1,000 km and consists of gas.
Saturn has a hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at its core, and radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Jupiter's
thermal energy is generated by the
Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism of slow
gravitational compression, but such a process alone may not be sufficient to explain heat production for Saturn, because it is less massive. An alternative or additional mechanism may be the generation of heat through the "raining out" of droplets of helium deep in Saturn's interior. As the droplets descend through the lower-density hydrogen, the process releases heat by
friction and leaves Saturn's outer layers depleted of helium. These descending droplets may have accumulated into a helium shell surrounding the core. Rainfalls of
diamonds have been suggested to occur within Saturn, as well as in Jupiter and
ice giants Uranus and Neptune.
The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The proportion of helium is significantly deficient compared to the abundance of this element in the Sun. The quantity of elements heavier than helium (
metallicity) is 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 heavier elements is estimated to be 19–31 times the mass of Earth, with a significant fraction located in Saturn's core region.
Saturn's atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter's, but Saturn's bands are much fainter and are much wider near the equator. The nomenclature used to describe these bands is the same as on Jupiter. Saturn's finer cloud patterns were not observed until the flybys of the Voyager spacecraft during the 1980s. Since then, Earth-based
telescopy has improved to the point where regular observations can be made.
The composition of the clouds varies with depth and increasing pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in the range of 100–160 K and pressures extending between 0.5–2
bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice. Water
ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185 to 270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 190–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10 and 20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in aqueous solution.
Saturn's usually bland atmosphere occasionally exhibits long-lived ovals and other features common on Jupiter. In 1990, the
Hubble Space Telescope imaged an enormous white cloud near Saturn's equator that 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 short-lived phenomenon that 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 best observed. The latest giant storm was observed in 2010. In 2015, researchers used
Very Large Array telescope to study Saturnian atmosphere, and reported that they found "long-lasting signatures of all mid-latitude giant storms, a mixture of equatorial storms up to hundreds of years old, and potentially an unreported older storm at 70°N".
The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System's planets, after Neptune's. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1,800 km/h). In images from the Cassini spacecraft during 2007, Saturn's northern hemisphere displayed a bright blue hue, similar to Uranus. The color was most likely caused by
Rayleigh scattering.Thermography has shown that Saturn's south pole has a warm
polar vortex, the only known example of such a phenomenon in the Solar System. Whereas temperatures on Saturn are normally −185 °C, temperatures on the vortex often reach as high as −122 °C, suspected to be the warmest spot on Saturn.
hexagonal wave pattern around the north polar vortex in the atmosphere at about 78°N was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 14,500 km (9,000 mi) long, which is longer 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 scientists think it is a
standing wave pattern in the atmosphere. Polygonal shapes have been replicated in the laboratory through differential rotation of fluids.
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 Cassini had observed a "
hurricane-like" storm locked to the south pole that had a clearly defined
eyewall. 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.
The south pole storm may have been present for billions of years. This vortex is comparable to the size of Earth, and it has winds of 550 km/h.
Saturn has an intrinsic
magnetic field that has a simple, symmetric shape—a magnetic
dipole. Its strength at the equator—0.2
µT)—is approximately one twentieth of 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. 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. Most probably, the magnetic field is generated similarly to that of Jupiter—by currents in the liquid metallic-hydrogen layer called a metallic-hydrogen dynamo. 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. Saturn's magnetosphere, like
Orbit and rotation
The average distance between Saturn and the Sun is over 1.4 billion kilometers (9
AU). With an average orbital speed of 9.68 km/s, it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days (or about 29+1⁄2 years) to finish one revolution around the Sun. As a consequence, it forms a near 5:2
mean-motion resonance with Jupiter. The elliptical orbit of Saturn is inclined 2.48° relative to the
orbital plane of the Earth. The
perihelion and aphelion distances are, respectively, 9.195 and 9.957 AU, on average. 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).
Astronomers use three different systems for specifying the rotation rate of Saturn. System I has a period of 10h 14m 00s (844.3°/d) and encompasses the Equatorial Zone, the South Equatorial Belt, and the North Equatorial Belt. The polar regions are considered to have rotation rates similar to System I. All other Saturnian latitudes, excluding the north and south polar regions, are indicated as System II and have been assigned a rotation period of 10h 38m 25.4s (810.76°/d). System III refers to Saturn's internal rotation rate. Based on
radio emissions from the planet detected by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, System III has a rotation period of 10h 39m 22.4s (810.8°/d). System III has largely superseded System II.
A precise value for the rotation period of the interior remains elusive. While approaching Saturn in 2004, Cassini found that the radio rotation period of Saturn had increased appreciably, to approximately 10h 45m 45s± 36s. An estimate of Saturn's rotation (as an indicated rotation rate for Saturn as a whole) based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes is 10h 32m 35s. Studies of the planet's
C Ring yield a rotation period of 10h 33m 38s+ 1m 52s − 1m 19s.
In March 2007, it was found that the variation in radio emissions from the planet did not match Saturn's rotation rate. This variance 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 creates a drag upon Saturn's magnetic field, slowing its rotation slightly relative to the rotation of the planet.
An apparent oddity for Saturn is that it does not have any known
trojan asteroids. These are minor planets that orbit the Sun at the stable
Lagrangian points, designated L4 and L5, located at 60° angles to the planet along its orbit. Trojan asteroids have been discovered for
Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.
Orbital resonance mechanisms, including
secular resonance, are believed to be the cause of the missing Saturnian trojans.
Saturn has 146 known
moons, 63 of which have formal names. It is estimated that there are other 100±30 outer irregular moons larger than 3 km (2 mi) in diameter.
In addition, there is evidence of dozens to hundreds of
moonlets with diameters of 40–500 meters in Saturn's rings, which are not considered to be true moons.
Titan, the largest moon, comprises more than 90% of the mass in orbit around Saturn, including the rings. Saturn's second-largest moon,
Rhea, may have a tenuous
ring system of its own, along with a tenuous
Enceladus, which seems similar in chemical makeup to comets, has often been regarded as a potential
microbial life. Evidence of this possibility includes the satellite's salt-rich particles having an "ocean-like" composition that indicates most of Enceladus's expelled
ice comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water. A 2015 flyby by Cassini through a plume on Enceladus found most of the ingredients to sustain life forms that live by
In April 2014, NASA scientists reported the possible beginning of a new moon within the
A Ring, which was imaged by Cassini on 15 April 2013.
Saturn is probably best known for the system of
planetary rings that makes it visually unique. The rings extend from 6,630 to 120,700 kilometers (4,120 to 75,000 mi) outward from Saturn's equator and average approximately 20 meters (66 ft) in thickness. They are composed predominantly of water ice, with trace amounts of
tholin impurities and a peppered coating of approximately 7% amorphous
carbon. The particles that make up the rings range in size from specks of dust up to 10 m. While the other
gas giants also have ring systems, Saturn's is the largest and most visible.
There are two main hypotheses regarding the origin of the rings. One hypothesis is that the rings are remnants of a destroyed moon of Saturn, for which a research team at MIT has proposed the name "
Chrysalis". The second hypothesis is that the rings are left over from the original
nebular material from which Saturn was formed. Some ice in the E ring comes from the moon Enceladus's geysers. The water abundance of the rings varies radially, with the outermost ring A being the most pure in ice water. This abundance variance may be explained by meteor bombardment.
Beyond the main rings, at a distance of 12 million km from the planet is the sparse Phoebe ring. It is tilted at an angle of 27° to the other rings and, like
Phoebe, orbits in
Some of the moons of Saturn, including
Prometheus, act as
shepherd moons to confine the rings and prevent them from spreading out.Pan and
Atlas cause weak, linear density waves in Saturn's rings that have yielded more reliable calculations of their masses.
Natural-color mosaic of Cassini narrow-angle camera images of the unilluminated side of Saturn's D, C, B, A and F rings (left to right) taken on May 9, 2007 (distances are to the planet's center).
Saturn has been known since prehistoric times, and in early recorded history it was a major character in various mythologies.
Babylonian astronomers systematically observed and recorded the movements of Saturn. In ancient Greek, the planet was known as ΦαίνωνPhainon, and in Roman times it was known as the "star of
ancient Roman mythology, the planet Phainon was sacred to this agricultural god, from which the planet takes its modern name. The Romans considered the god Saturnus the equivalent of the
Greek godCronus; in modern
Greek, the planet retains the name Cronus—Κρόνος: Kronos.
The Greek scientist
Ptolemy based his calculations of Saturn's orbit on observations he made while it was in
Hindu astrology, there are nine astrological objects, known as
Navagrahas. Saturn is known as "
Shani" and judges everyone based on the good and bad deeds performed in life. Ancient
Chinese and Japanese culture designated the planet Saturn as the "earth star" (土星). This was based on
Five Elements which were traditionally used to classify natural elements.
Saturn's rings require at least a 15-mm-diameter
telescope to resolve and thus were not known to exist until
Christiaan Huygens saw them in 1655 and published about this in 1659.
Galileo, with his primitive telescope in 1610, incorrectly thought of Saturn's appearing not quite round as two moons on Saturn's sides. It was not until Huygens used greater telescopic magnification that this notion was refuted, and the rings were truly seen for the first time. Huygens also discovered Saturn's
Giovanni Domenico Cassini later discovered four other moons:
Dione. In 1675, Cassini discovered the gap now known as the
William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe, a highly
irregular satellite that does not rotate synchronously with Saturn as the larger moons do. Phoebe was the first such satellite found and it took more than a year to orbit Saturn in a
retrograde orbit. During the early 20th century, research on Titan led to the confirmation in 1944 that it had a thick atmosphere – a feature unique among the Solar System's moons.
Pioneer 11 made the first flyby of Saturn in September 1979, when it passed within 20,000 km of the planet's cloud tops. Images were taken of the planet and a few of its moons, although their resolution was too low to discern surface detail. The spacecraft also studied Saturn's rings, revealing the thin F-ring and the fact that dark gaps in the rings are bright when viewed at a high
phase angle (towards the Sun), meaning that they contain fine light-scattering material. In addition, Pioneer 11 measured the temperature of Titan.
In November 1980, the Voyager 1 probe visited the Saturn system. It sent back the first high-resolution images of the planet, its rings and satellites. Surface features of various moons were seen for the first time. Voyager 1 performed a close flyby of Titan, increasing knowledge of the atmosphere of the moon. It proved that Titan's atmosphere is impenetrable at
visible wavelengths; therefore no surface details were seen. The flyby changed the spacecraft's trajectory out of the plane of the Solar System.
Almost a year later, in August 1981, Voyager 2 continued the study of the Saturn system. More close-up images of Saturn's moons were acquired, as well as evidence of changes in the atmosphere and the rings. Unfortunately, during the flyby, the probe's turnable camera platform stuck for a couple of days and some planned imaging was lost. Saturn's gravity was used to direct the spacecraft's trajectory towards Uranus.
The probes discovered and confirmed several new satellites orbiting near or within the planet's rings, as well as the small
Maxwell Gap (a gap within the
C Ring) and
Keeler gap (a 42 km-wide gap in the
The Cassini–Huygensspace probe entered orbit around Saturn on 1 July 2004. In June 2004, it conducted a close flyby of
Phoebe, sending back high-resolution images and data. Cassini's flyby of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, captured radar images of large lakes and their coastlines with numerous islands and mountains. The orbiter completed two Titan flybys before releasing the
Huygens probe on 25 December 2004. Huygens descended onto the surface of Titan on 14 January 2005.
Starting in early 2005, scientists used Cassini to track lightning on Saturn. The power of the lightning is approximately 1,000 times that of lightning on Earth.
In 2006, NASA reported that Cassini had found evidence of liquid water reservoirs no more than tens of meters below the surface that erupt in
geysers on Saturn's moon
Enceladus. These jets of icy particles are emitted into orbit around Saturn from vents in the moon's south polar region. Over 100 geysers have been identified on Enceladus. In May 2011, NASA scientists reported that Enceladus "is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it".
Cassini photographs have revealed a previously undiscovered planetary ring, outside the brighter main rings of Saturn and inside the G and E rings. The source of this ring is hypothesized to be the crashing of a meteoroid off
Epimetheus. In July 2006, images were returned of hydrocarbon lakes near Titan's north pole, the presence of which were confirmed in January 2007. In March 2007, hydrocarbon seas were found near the North pole, the largest of which is almost the size of the
Caspian Sea. In October 2006, the probe detected an 8,000 km diameter cyclone-like storm with an eyewall at Saturn's south pole.
From 2004 to 2 November 2009, the probe discovered and confirmed eight new satellites. In April 2013 Cassini sent back images of a hurricane at the planet's north pole 20 times larger than those found on Earth, with winds faster than 530 km/h (330 mph). On 15 September 2017, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft performed the "Grand Finale" of its mission: a number of passes through gaps between Saturn and Saturn's inner rings. The
atmospheric entry of Cassini ended the mission.
Possible future missions
The continued exploration of Saturn is still considered to be a viable option for NASA as part of their ongoing
New Frontiers program of missions. NASA previously requested for plans to be put forward for a mission to Saturn that included the
Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe, and possible investigations into the habitability and possible discovery of life on Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus by Dragonfly.
Saturn is the most distant of the five planets easily visible to the naked eye from Earth, the other four being
Venus, Mars and Jupiter. (Uranus, and occasionally
4 Vesta, are visible to the naked eye in dark skies.) Saturn appears to the naked eye in the night sky as a bright, yellowish point of light. The mean
apparent magnitude of Saturn is 0.46 with a standard deviation of 0.34. Most of the magnitude variation is due to the inclination of the ring system relative to the Sun and Earth. The brightest magnitude, −0.55, occurs near in time to when the plane of the rings is inclined most highly, and the faintest magnitude, 1.17, occurs around the time when they are least inclined. It takes approximately 29.4 years for the planet to complete an entire circuit of the
ecliptic against the background constellations of the
zodiac. Most people will require an optical aid (very large binoculars or a small telescope) that magnifies at least 30 times to achieve an image of Saturn's rings in which clear resolution is present. When Earth passes through the ring plane, which occurs twice every Saturnian year (roughly every 15 Earth years), the rings briefly disappear from view because they are so thin. Such a "disappearance" will next occur in 2025, but Saturn will be too close to the Sun for observations.
Saturn and its rings are best seen when the planet is at, or near,
opposition, the configuration of a planet when it is at an
elongation of 180°, and thus appears opposite the Sun in the sky. A Saturnian opposition occurs every year—approximately every 378 days—and results in the planet appearing at its brightest. Both the Earth and Saturn orbit the Sun on eccentric orbits, which means their distances from the Sun vary over time, and therefore so do their distances from each other, hence varying the brightness of Saturn from one opposition to the next. Saturn also appears brighter when the rings are angled such that they are more visible. For example, during the opposition of 17 December 2002, Saturn appeared at its brightest due to a favorable
orientation of its rings relative to the Earth, even though Saturn was closer to the Earth and Sun in late 2003.
From time to time, Saturn is
occulted by the Moon (that is, the Moon covers up Saturn in the sky). As with all the planets in the Solar System, occultations of Saturn occur in "seasons". Saturnian occultations will take place monthly for about a 12-month period, followed by about a five-year period in which no such activity is registered. The Moon's orbit is inclined by several degrees relative to Saturn's, so occultations will only occur when Saturn is near one of the points in the sky where the two planes intersect (both the length of Saturn's year and the 18.6-Earth year
nodal precession period of the Moon's orbit influence the periodicity).
abcdSimon, J.L.; Bretagnon, P.; Chapront, J.; Chapront-Touzé, M.; Francou, G.; Laskar, J. (February 1994). "Numerical expressions for precession formulae and mean elements for the Moon and planets". Astronomy and Astrophysics. 282 (2): 663–683.
^Fortney, J.J.; Helled, R.; Nettlemann, N.; Stevenson, D.J.; Marley, M.S.; Hubbard, W.B.; Iess, L. (6 December 2018).
"The Interior of Saturn". In Baines, K.H.; Flasar, F.M.; Krupp, N.; Stallard, T. (eds.). Saturn in the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press. pp. 44–68.
Archived from the original on 2 May 2020. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
^Courtin, R.; et al. (1967). "The Composition of Saturn's Atmosphere at Temperate Northern Latitudes from Voyager IRIS spectra". Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society. 15: 831.
abGuerlet, S.; Fouchet, T.; Bézard, B. (November 2008). Charbonnel, C.; Combes, F.; Samadi, R. (eds.). "Ethane, acetylene and propane distribution in Saturn's stratosphere from Cassini/CIRS limb observations". SF2A-2008: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the French Society of Astronomy and Astrophysics: 405.
^Aguiar, Ana C. Barbosa; et al. (April 2010). "A laboratory model of Saturn's North Polar Hexagon". Icarus. 206 (2): 755–763.
10.1016/j.icarus.2009.10.022. Laboratory experiment of spinning disks in a liquid solution forms vortices around a stable hexagonal pattern similar to that of Saturn's.