Saturn with its rings







Image Credit:
NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)Acknowledgment: R.G. French (Wellesley College), J. Cuzzi (NASA/Ames), L. Dones (SwRI), and J. Lissauer (NASA/Ames) Target Name: Saturn
Is a satellite of: Sol (our sun)
Mission: Hubble Space Telescope (HST)
Spacecraft: Hubble Space Telescope
Instrument: Wide Field Planetary Camera 2
Product Size: 3000 samples x 1500 lines
Produced By: Space Telescope Science Institute
Producer ID: STSCI-PRC01-15A
Addition Date: 2001-07-21
Primary Data Set: Space Telescope Science Institute

Original Caption Released with Image:
Looming like a giant flying saucer in our outer solar system, Saturn puts on a show as the planet and its magnificent ring system nod majestically over the course of its 29-year journey around the Sun. A series of Hubble Space Telescope images, captured from 1996 to 2000, show Saturn's rings open up from just past edge-on to nearly fully open as it moves from autumn towards winter in its Northern Hemisphere (for the composite view of all images see PIA03156.
Saturn's equator is tilted relative to its orbit by 27 degrees, very similar to the 23-degree tilt of the Earth. As Saturn moves along its orbit, first one hemisphere, then the other is tilted towards the Sun. This cyclical change causes seasons on Saturn, just as the changing orientation of Earth's tilt causes seasons on our planet. The first image in this sequence, on the lower left, was taken soon after the autumnal equinox in Saturn's Northern Hemisphere (which is the same as the spring equinox in its Southern Hemisphere). By the final image in the sequence, on the upper right, the tilt is nearing its extreme, or winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere).

Astronomers are studying this set of images to investigate the detailed variations in the color and brightness of the rings. They hope to learn more about the rings' composition, how they were formed, and how long they might last. Saturn's rings are incredibly thin, with a thickness of only about 30 feet (10 meters). The rings are made of dusty water ice, in the form of boulder-sized and smaller chunks that gently collide with each other as they orbit around Saturn. Saturn's gravitational field constantly disrupts these ice chunks, keeping them spread out and preventing them from combining to form a moon. The rings, as shown here, have a slight pale reddish color due to the presence of organic material mixed with the water ice.

Saturn is about 75,000 miles (120,000 km) across, and is flattened at the poles because of its very rapid rotation. A day is only 10 hours long on Saturn. Strong winds account for the horizontal bands in the atmosphere of this giant gas planet. The delicate color variations in the clouds are due to smog in the upper atmosphere, produced when ultraviolet radiation from the Sun shines on methane gas. Deeper in the atmosphere, the visible clouds and gases merge gradually into hotter and denser gases, with no solid surface for visiting spacecraft to land on.

The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft, launched from Earth in 1997, is well on its way to the Saturn system. It will arrive in 2004 to land a probe on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and to orbit the planet for four years for a detailed study of the entire Saturn system.

These images of Saturn were taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 onboard Hubble.



1. Mimas
2. Enceladus
3. Tethys
4. Dione
5. Rhea
6. Titan
7. Hyperion
8. Iapetus
9. Erriapo
10. Phoebe
11. Janus
12. Epimetheus
13. Helene
14. Telesto
15. Calypso
16. Kiviuq
17. Atlas
18. Prometheus
19. Pandora
20. Pan
21. Ymir
22. Paaliaq
23. Tarvos
24. Ijiraq
25. Suttungr
26. Mundilfari
27. Albiorix
28. Skathi
29. Siarnaq
30. Thrymr
31. Narvi
32. Methone
33. Pallene
34. Polydeuces
35. Daphnis
36. Aegir
37. Bebhionn
38. Bergelmir
39. Bestla
40. Farbauti
41. Fenrir
42. Fornjot
43. Hati
44. Hyrokkin
45. Kari
46. Loge
47. Skoll
48. Surtur
49. S/2004 S7
50. S/2004 S12
51. S/2004 S13
52. S/2004 S17
53. S/2006 S1
54. S/2006 S3
55. Greip
56. Jarnsaxa
57. Tarqeq
58. S/2007 S2
59. S/2007 S3
60. Anthe 

 Saturn: Rings
 Ring Name: D
Distance*: 67,000 - 74,500 km
Width: 7,500 km

Ring Name: C
Distance*: 74,500 - 92,000 km
Width: 17,500 km

Ring Name: Columbo gap
Distance*: 77,800 km
Width: 100 km

Ring Name: Maxwell gap
Distance*: 87,500 km
Width: 270 km

Ring Name: B
Distance*: 92,000 - 117,500 km
Width: 25,500 km

Ring Name: Cassini division
Distance*: 117,500 - 122,200 km
Width: 4,700 km

Ring Name: Huygens gap
Distance*: 117,680 km

Ring Name: A
Distance*: 122,200 - 136,800 km
Width: 14,600 km

Ring Name: Encke division
Distance*: 133,570 km
Width: 325 km

Ring Name: Keeler gap
Distance*: 136,530 km
Width: 35 km

Ring Name: F
Distance*: 140,210 km
Width: 30 km - 500 km

Ring Name: G
Distance*: 165,800 - 173,800 km
Width: 8,000 km

Ring Name: E
Distance*: 180,000 - 480,000 km
Width: 285 - 440 km

* The distance is measured from the planet center to the start of the ring.  

The rings of Saturn have puzzled astronomers since Galileo Galilei discovered them with his telescope in 1610. Detailed study by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft in the 1980s only increased the mystery.

There are thousands of rings made of up billions of particles of ice and rock. The particles range in size from a grain of sugar to the size of a house. The rings are believe to be pieces of comets, asteroids or shattered moons that broke up before they reached the planet. Each ring orbits at a different speed around the planet. Information from NASA's Cassini mission will help reveal how they formed, how they maintain their orbit and, above all, why they are there in the first place.

While the other three gas planets in the solar system - Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune - have rings orbiting around them, Saturn's are by far the largest and most spectacular. With a thickness of about 1 kilometer (3,200 feet) or less, they span up to 282,000 km (175,000 miles), about three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its moon.

Named alphabetically in the order they were discovered, the rings are relatively close to each other, with the exception of the Cassini Division, a gap measuring 4,700 kilometers (2,920 miles). The main rings are, working outward from the planet, known as C, B, and A. The Cassini Division is the largest gap in the rings and separates Rings B and A. In addition a number of fainter rings have been discovered more recently. The D Ring is exceedingly faint and closest to the planet. The F Ring is a narrow feature just outside the A Ring. Beyond that are two far fainter rings named G and E. The rings show a tremendous amount of structure on all scales; some of this structure is related to gravitational perturbations by Saturn's many moons, but much of it remains unexplained.

To enter Saturn's orbit, Cassini flew through the gap between the F and the G rings, farther from the planet than the Cassini Division. As a safe measure, during the crossing of the ring plane, instruments and cameras onboard the spacecraft were shut off temporarily. However, the spectacular crossing into Saturn's orbit brought incredible information, images and footage, while the instruments onboard are still collecting unique data that may answer many questions about the rings' composition.

Reference: USGS Astrogeology: Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature - Ring Nomenclature

Saturn: Facts & Figures  
Discovered By
  Known by the Ancients
Date of Discovery
Average Distance from the Sun
  Metric: 1,426,725,400 km
English: 885,904,700 miles
Scientific Notation: 1.4267254 x 109 km (9.53707 A.U.) 
By Comparison: 9.53707 x Earth
Perihelion (closest)
  Metric: 1,349,467,000 km
English: 838,519,000 miles
Scientific Notation: 1.349467 x 109 km (9.021 A.U.) 
By Comparison: 9.177 x Earth
Aphelion (farthest)
  Metric: 1,503,983,000 km
English: 934,530,000 miles
Scientific Notation: 1.503983 x 109 km (10.054 A.U.) 
By Comparison: 9.886 x Earth
Equatorial Radius
  Metric: 60,268 km
English: 37,449 miles
Scientific Notation: 6.0268 x 104 km
By Comparison: 9.449 x Earth
Equatorial Circumference
  Metric: 378,675 km
English: 235,298 miles
Scientific Notation: 3.78675 x 105 km
  Metric: 827,130,000,000,000 km3
Scientific Notation: 8.2713 x 1014 km3
By Comparison: 763.6 x Earth
  Metric: 568,510,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg
Scientific Notation: 5.6851 x 1026 kg
By Comparison: 95.16 x Earth
  Metric: 0.70 g/cm3
By Comparison: 0.127 x Earth
Surface Area
  Metric: 43,466,000,000 km2
English: 16,782,000,000 square miles
Scientific Notation: 4.3466 x 1010 km2
By Comparison: 85.22 x Earth
Equatorial Surface Gravity
  Metric: 10.4* m/s2
English: 34.11 ft/s2
By Comparison: If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 91 pounds on Saturn (at the equator). *Derived from a 1 bar radius of 60,268 km.
Escape Velocity
  Metric: 127,760 km/h
English: 79,390 mph
Scientific Notation: 35,490 m/s
By Comparison: Escape velocity of Earth is 25,022 mph.
Sidereal Rotation Period (Length of Day)
  0.44401 Earth days 
10.656 hours 
By Comparison: 0.445 x Earth
Sidereal Orbit Period (Length of Year)
  29.4 Earth years 
10755.7 Earth days 
Mean Orbit Velocity
  Metric: 34,821 km/h
English: 21,637 mph
Scientific Notation: 9,672.4 m/s
By Comparison: 0.865 x Earth
Orbital Eccentricity
By Comparison: 3.24 x Earth
Orbital Inclination to Ecliptic
  2.484 degrees
Equatorial Inclination to Orbit
  26.73 degrees
By Comparison: 1.14 x Earth
Orbital Circumference
  Metric: 8,725,000,000 km
English: 5,421,000,000 miles
Scientific Notation: 8.725 x 109 km
By Comparison: 9.439 x Earth
Effective Temperature
  Metric: -178 °C
English: -288 °F
Scientific Notation: 95 K
Atmospheric Constituents
  Hydrogen, Helium
Scientific Notation: H2, He
By Comparison: Earth's atmosphere consists mostly of N2 and O2.

A Planet


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