Saturn’s Wispy F Ring
Lord of the Rings, Saturn
(Source: National Geographic)
Dwarfed by Saturn
Saturn’s moon Mimas appears near Saturn, dwarfed by its parent planet in this image. Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers across) appears tiny compared to the storms clearly visible in far northern and southern hemispheres of Saturn. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 18 degrees below the ringplane. North on Saturn is up and rotated 27 degrees to the left.
The Rings and Moons of Saturn
Most Powerful Storms of the Solar System
NASA detects extreme temperatures on Saturn after an enormous storm
In December 2010, Saturn was quickly overrun by a storm several times the size of Earth. For months the atmospheric outburst raged, growing and traveling so quickly that it soon managed to wrap itself around the entire northern hemisphere. To date, it is the most massive storm we’ve ever observed on the ringed planet. Now, NASA scientists are saying the storm was even more powerful than previously believed — and that things got very, very hot.
Shortly after the Saturnian storm erupted in late 2010, NASA scientists used infrared imaging equipment onboard the Agency’s Cassini spacecraft to identify two “beacons” within the tempest, where temperatures were elevated above normal by around 20 degrees Kelvin. This temperature differential, explains planetary scientist Brigette Hesman, is regarded as “reasonable” for your typical Saturnian storm.
Solar System by Luke Minner and Naomi Wilson
The Cassini spacecraft takes an angled view toward Saturn, showing the southern reaches of the planet with the rings on a dramatic diagonal.
North on Saturn is up and rotated 16 degrees to the left. This view looks toward the southern, unilluminated side of the rings from about 14 degrees below the ringplane. The rings cast wide shadows on the planet’s southern hemisphere.
The moon Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers across) appears as a small, bright speck in the lower left of the image.
The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on June 15, 2012 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.8 million miles (2.9 million kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 72 degrees. Image scale is 11 miles (17 kilometers) per pixel.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A geyser sprays water vapor from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus
We’ve known for some time that geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus sprays water vaporthat eventually finds its way to Saturn. But this striking image lets us see that water vapor spilling into space.
Michael Benson composited this image from image fragments sent by the Cassini spacecraft, just one of the incredible bits of space porn from his upcoming book Planetfall: New Solar System Visions. The Enceladus geysers can blast 500 pounds of water vapor per second, and some of that water finds its way into Saturn’s atmosphere. It’s also believed that the vapor helps form one of Saturn’s outer rings, the “E” ring, in the form of ice. So far, this relationship of a satellite feeding materials into its planet, is unique to Enceladus and Saturn. We don’t know yet of other moons and planets with a similar relationship. (Note: Moralltach notes in the comments that materials from Io’s volcanic eruptions form the Io torus, a gas ring around Jupiter. Enceladus is believed to be responsible for the water that exists in Saturn’s atmosphere as well as around the planet, which is what makes it so unusual.)
For now, though, we can just focus in on the incredible beauty of Enceladus itself, and the glow of water vapor shooting into space. To see an enormous, detailed version of this image (and for details on how Benson assembled the image), head over to North Country Public Radio.
Holy crap, these true-color photographs of Saturn are gorgeous
Every time you think you’ve seen all there is to see of Saturn and its moons, the Cassini imaging team goes ahead and blows that notion right out of the water, along with your mind. In the series of images featured below, Saturn and its giant moon, Titan, show their true, jaw-dropping colors.
“For no other reason than that they are gorgeous, the Cassini imaging team is releasing today a set of fabulous images of Saturn and Titan…in living color…for your day-dreaming enjoyment,” wrote Carolyn Porco, head of Cassini’s Imaging Team and director of CICLOPS, over email. She continues:
Note that our presence at Saturn for the last eight years has made possible the sighting of subtle changes with time, and one such change is obvious here… As the seasons have advanced, and spring has come to the north and autumn to the south throughout the Saturn system, the azure blue in the northern winter Saturnian hemisphere that greeted Cassini upon its arrival in 2004 is now fading; and it is now the southern hemisphere, in its approach to winter, that is taking on a bluish hue.
Absolutely stunning. For more info on each of these photos, head over to CICLOPS, where you’ll also find their massive, hi-res versions.
What’s the coolest way Saturn’s rings could get destroyed?
A lot of people have been moved by the sight of Saturn’s rings. Galileo described them, when he first saw them, as metaphorical “ears.” Another astronomer and theologian, Leo Allatius, thought they might literally be Jesus’ foreskin (really). Most of us today just think of them as pretty. It’s likely that they were formed when a moon or two was destroyed and fragments of it spread out, orbiting the planet spectacularly. The moon was probably like Enceladus, covered with ice. Many of the rings are white, with minor impurities in the ice turning them delicate shades of blue and pink.
If there’s one thing that the universe hates, it’s delicate pastels, and so it’s natural that Saturn’s rings aren’t going to last. The only question is, how cool is it going to look when they go? The most simple and boring way for them to go is the most likely. The orbits of the debris will degrade, causing them to either plunge into the planet or fly off into space. From Earth it’ll look like they’re evaporating very slowly. Yawn.
A more exciting theory is they’ll get worn away by comets. This might sound like the same thing, but spacecraft have observed orbiting moons causing visible waves and collisions in the rings. There’s even been footage of sudden tears and gaps as objects plow into the rings, disrupting whole sections with their gravity. Seeing comets and meteors taking out huge sections of the rings would be a little like seeing whole stacks of dominoes fall with one touch.
The coolest way for Saturn’s rings to go, though, would be if they stuck around long enough for the sun to expand. If more debris gets sucked into them, they might last that long. In order to see the event, humans would either have had to move to Mars or go live aboard spacecraft, but it would be worth it. Since Saturn’s rings are mostly ice, they benefit from having the sun a good distance away. As the sun heats and expands, the debris in the rings would heat up massively. Although the heat and movement in the rings would dismantle them, they would keep trying to orbit the sun along with Saturn… for a while, anyway. They’d heat up, giving off light, and trail along behind Saturn, turning Saturn into the largest “comet” this solar system has ever seen.
This is yet another reason to keep the Earth livable while terraforming other planets. We do want to be around to see this.
Top Image: NASA/Hubble
Second Image: NASA
Ten things you may not know about the Saturn
- Saturn Is Both Hot and Cold - Saturn is, on average, 900 million miles from the Sun, making it the sixth farthest planet out in the solar system. Because of this distance, the cloud tops of the planet’s thick atmosphere do not get much solar energy and are quite cold, at -285 degrees Fahrenheit. But the interior of the planet is much warmer, probably due to energy being generated by sinking helium. Saturn emits two and a half times as much heat as it receives from the sun.
- Aurora on Saturn - Saturn experiences the aurora just as Earth does. Auroras are sometimes also called the Northern Lights (or Southern Lights, for those in the Southern Hemisphere). When solar plasma interacts with magnetic fields in the atmosphere of Saturn, particles become excited and emit light.
- Saturn Can Be a Stormy Place - Besides magnetic storms/aurorae, spacecraft visiting Saturn have observed some strong storm systems, including one hurricane-like storm with an eye and a long-lasting hexagonal cloud formation.
- Saturn Could Float on Water - It’s a fact often spouted about Saturn, but what does this mean? Saturn is the least dense of the planets. Considering its large size, one would expect it be more massive, or weigh more. But the planet is mostly gas (96% hydrogen) with a small rocky core.
- There Are Thousands of Rings - Although Saturn has a handful of main ring systems, the entire system is actually composed of thousands of tiny rings. The rings themselves are made of billions of pieces of ice, rock, and dust.
- Saturn’s Rings Occasionally “Disappear” - Saturn tilts in its orbit with respect to Earth. Therefore, sometimes Saturn shows a wide expanse of its rings, and sometimes the planet is tilted so that the rings are pointing directly at Earth. Because the ring system is extremely narrow, the rings can seem to disappear when they are aimed edge-on to Earth.
- Its Moons Could Hold Life - Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is the only other body in the solar system besides Earth to have a substantial nitrogen atmosphere. It also has lakes, although these lakes are made of methane and not water. Its moon Enceladus also has a wet surface with icy geysers.
- Shepherd Moons - Saturn has small moons that can be found near its giant ring system that keep the rings in line. Just as a shepherd tends to his flock by keeping the sheep in line and ushering them from one field to another, a shepherd moon influences the rocks and ice that make up Saturn’s ring system, its gravity helping to keep the particles from drifting out of line.
- No One Discovered Saturn - Saturn is easy to see without binoculars or a telescope. When it is up in the sky, it looks just like a bright star. Its existence has been known by many different cultures for thousands of years, even though they haven’t always understood just what it is they were looking at.
- Cassini Discovered Many Features of Saturn - Cassini’s name is often associated with Saturn. Giovanni Domenico Cassini was an Italian astronomer who discovered the division in Saturn’s rings that is now named after him. He also was the first to study four of Saturn’s moons. A spacecraft sent to explore Saturn was named after Cassini.
Need more information about Saturn? Read Saturn Facts.
Source: NASA, GIF from B and C
Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 Winners
1. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. When we gaze at the moon with the eye, we see only the upper layers of its dense atmosphere. But many mysteries lie beneath.
2. True-color image of layers of haze in Titan’s atmosphere