Saturn was one of the five planets visible to the naked eye that have been known to exist for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks knew about the planet and named it after their god of agriculture – Kronos. That may be due to the planet’s golden color, which is similar to wheat. The planet later became known as Saturnus or Saturn, which was the Roman equivalent of Kronos. Saturn was the most distant of the five planets that can be seen with the naked eye. The Romans and Greeks were not the only ones who knew about Saturn. In Hindu culture, it was one of the nine Navagrahas, which are the main celestial bodies that are supposed to have influence over people’s lives. Saturn was known as Shani and was the Judge of the planets. The Chinese and Japanese termed it the earth star; their classification was based on the five elements. To the Ancient Hebrews, Saturn was known as Shabbathai.
Although people have known about Saturn for thousands of years, discoveries have still been made about the planet more recently. No one knew that Saturn had rings until the 1600’s. Galileo discovered them with his telescope in 1610, but he did not know what these were either. Thus they remained a mystery until 1655 when the astronomer Christian Huygen figured out that they were planetary rings.
Additionally, Saturn’s moons were discovered over a period of time. Christian Huygen discovered Titan, which is Saturn’s largest moon. Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered four moons – Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys, and Dione. In 1789, the astronomer William Herschel discovered two more moons – Mimas and Enceladus. In 1848, British scientists discovered a moon called Hyperion.
We have learned much more about Saturn with the use of probes. To date, scientists have discovered 60 moons around Saturn. In 1979, Pioneer 11 flew by the planet and took photos. In 1980, the Voyager 1 probe took images of the planet and its largest moon, Titan. Voyager 2 also gathered information and showed scientists changes in the planet’s ring system. They also discovered gaps in the rings.
In 2004, Cassini-Huygens extensively studied the Saturn system. It brought back detailed data about both Titan and Saturn. Scientists believe that the information that Cassini gathered has shown them proof of geysers on Enceladus that have eruptions of liquid water. Scientists were also able to discovere another ring of Saturn in 2006 due to photos that Cassini had taken.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on Saturn.