Saturn’s rings are one of the most recognized and revered celestial objects known to the human race. From a distance, they look like a disk of layered crystal or multicolored disks within disks that wrap around Saturn’s hazy umber face. When viewed up close, we see that these rings are actually particles of water ice (from microns to icebergs), as well as silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.
We would also noticed that the rings have some interesting orbital mechanics. In fact, each ring has a different orbit that is the result of its proximity to Saturn (i.e., the closer they are, the faster they orbit). To illustrate what this complex system look like, NASA Fellow Dr. James O’Donoghue created a stunning animation that shows how each of Saturn’s major ring segments (A-Ring to F-Ring) orbit together around the planet.
Radar evidence shows that geysers on Enceladus are ejecting water that turns to snow. The snow not only falls back on Enceladus’ surface, but also makes its way to its neighboring moons, Mimas and Tethys, making them more reflective. Researchers are calling this a ‘snow cannon.’
Saturn’s moon Mimas is the smallest of the gas giant’s major moons. (Saturn has 62 moons, but some of them are tiny moonlets less than 1 km in diameter.) Two new studies show how Mimas acted as a kind of snow-plow, widening the Cassini division between Saturn’s rings.
Can you imagine the Solar System without Saturn’s rings? Can you envision Earth at the time the dinosaurs roamed the planet? According to a new paper, the two may have coincided.
Data from the Cassini mission shows that Saturn’s rings may be only 10 to 100 million years old. They may not have been there during the reign of the dinosaurs, and may in fact be a fairly modern development in our Solar System.
It has been almost forty years since the Voyager 1 and 2 missions visited the Saturn system. As the probes flew by the gas giant, they were able to capture some stunning, high-resolution images of the planet’s atmosphere, its many moons, and its iconic ring system. In addition, the probes also revealed that Saturn was slowly losing its rings, at a rate that would see them gone in about 100 million years.
More recently, the Cassini orbiter visited the Saturn system and spent over 12 years studying the planet, its moons and its ring system. And according to new research based on Cassini’s data, it appears that Saturn is losing its rings at the maximum rate predicted by the Voyager missions. According to the study, Saturn’s rings are being gobbled up by the gas giant at a rate that means they could be gone in less 100 million years.
During the summer of 2018, the planets of Mars and Saturn (one after the other) have been in opposition. In astronomical terms, opposition refers to when a planet is on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the Sun. This not only means that the planet is closer to Earth in its respective orbit, but that is also fully lit by the Sun (as seen from Earth) and much more visible.
As a result, astronomers are able to observe these planets in greater detail. The Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of this situation to do what it has done best for the past twenty-eight years – capture some breathtaking images of both planets! Hubble made its observations of Saturn in June and Mars in July, and showed both planets close to their opposition.
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Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Next up, we take a look at the ringed-beauty, Saturn!
Saturn is famous for many things. Aside from its ring system, which are the most visible and beautiful of any gas giant, it is also known for its extensive system of moons (the second largest in the Solar System behind Jupiter). And then there its banded appearance and gold color, which are the result of its peculiar composition and persistent weather patterns.
Much like Jupiter, Saturn’s weather systems are known for being particularly extreme, giving rise to features that can be seen from great distances. It’s high winds periodically create massive oval-shaped storms, jet streams, hurricanes, and hexagonal wave patterns that are visible in both the northern and southern polar regions.
The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.
Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.
Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.
The presence of hydrogen gas results in clouds of deep red. However, these are obscured by clouds of ammonia, which are closer to the outer edge of the atmosphere and cover the entire planet. The exposure of this ammonia to the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes it to appear white. Combined with its deeper red clouds, this results in the planet having a pale gold color.
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 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.
Great White Spot:
On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.
These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.
The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. This is due in part to Saturn’s high rotational velocity – which is 9.87 km/s (6.13 mi/s), which works out to 35,500 km/h (22,058.7 mi/h). At this rate, it only takes the planet 10 hours 33 minutes to rotate once on its axis. However, due to it being a gas giant, there is a difference between the rotation of its atmosphere and its core.
Data obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions indicated peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.
The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.
The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years.
In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter. This storm appeared to be caused by heat that was generated in the depths of the warm interior of Saturn, which then escaped to the upper atmosphere and escaped the planet.
Saturn has also been noted for its “string of pearls” feature, which was captured by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in 2006. This feature, which appeared in it’s northern latitudes (and has not been seen on any other gas giant) is a series of cloud clearings spaced at regular intervals that show how Saturn’s atmosphere is lit by its own internal, thermal glow.
So how is the weather on Saturn? Pretty violent and stormy! And not surprising given the planet’s mass, composition, powerful gravity, and rapid rotation. Makes you feel happy we live on Earth, where the Earth is (comparatively speaking) pretty calm and boring!
Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest of Saturn’s Moons – Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.
From the 17th century onward, astronomers made some profound discoveries around the planet Saturn, which they believed was the most distant planet of the Solar System at the time. Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Domenico Cassini were the first, spotting the largest moons of Saturn – Titan, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus. More discoveries followed; and today, what we recognized as the Saturn system includes 62 confirmed satellites.
What we know of this system has grown considerably in recent decades, thanks to missions like Voyager and Cassini. And with this knowledge has come multiple proposals that claim how Saturn’s moons should someday be colonized. In addition to boasting the only body other than Earth to have a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, there are also abundant resources in this system that could be harnessed.
Much like the idea of colonizing the Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and other bodies in the Solar System, the idea of establishing colonies on Saturn’s moons has been explored extensively in science fiction. At the same time, scientific proposals have been made that emphasize how colonies would benefit humanity, allowing us to mount missions deeper into space and ushering in an age of abundance!
Examples in Fiction:
The colonization of Saturn has been a recurring theme in science fiction over the decades. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Titan is home to a human colony of 250,000 people. The colony plays a vital role in commerce, where hydrogen is taken from the atmosphere of Saturn and used as fuel for interplanetary travel.
In Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant series (1983-2001), Saturn’s moons have been colonized by various nations in a post-diaspora era. In this story, Titan has been colonized by the Japanese, whereas Saturn has been colonized by the Russians, Chinese, and other former Asian nations.
In the novel Titan (1997) by Stephen Baxter, the plot centers on a NASA mission to Titan which must struggle to survive after crash landing on the surface. In the first few chapters of Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco(1986), a character ends up frozen on the surface of Titan, where they are stuck for several hundred years.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1996), nitrogen from Titan is used in the terraforming of Mars. In his novel 2312 (2012), humanity has colonized several of Saturn’s moons, which includes Titan and Iapetus. Several references are made to the “Enceladian biota” in the story as well, which are microscopic alien organisms that some humans ingest because of their assumed medicinal value.
As part of his Grand Tour Series, Ben Bova’s novels Saturn (2003) and Titan (2006) address the colonization of the Cronian system. In these stories, Titan is being explored by an artificially intelligent rover which mysteriously begins malfunctioning, while a mobile human Space Colony explores the Rings and other moons.
In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999), Robert Zubrin advocated colonizing the outer Solar System, a plan which included mining the atmospheres of the outer planets and establishing colonies on their moons. In addition to Uranus and Neptune, Saturn was designated as one of the largest sources of deuterium and helium-3, which could drive the pending fusion economy.
He further identified Saturn as being the most important and most valuable of the three, because of its relative proximity, low radiation, and excellent system of moons. Zubrin claimed that Titan is a prime candidate for colonization because it is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere and is rich in carbon-bearing compounds.
On March 9th, 2006, NASA’s Cassini space probe found possible evidence of liquid water on Enceladus, which was confirmed by NASA in 2014. According to data derived from the probe, this water emerges from jets around Enceladus’ southern pole, and is no more than tens of meters below the surface in certain locations. This would would make collecting water considerably easier than on a moon like Europa, where the ice sheet is several km thick.
Data obtained by Cassini also pointed towards the presence of volatile and organic molecules. And Enceladus also has a higher density than many of Saturn’s moons, which indicates that it has a larger average silicate core. All of these resources would prove very useful for the sake of constructing a colony and providing basic operations.
In October of 2012, Elon Musk unveiled his concept for an Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), which was central to his long-term goal of colonizing Mars. At the time, Musk stated that the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT mission departing in 2024.
In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs. This system, which was originally intended to transport settlers to Mars, had evolved in its role to transport human beings to more distant locations in the Solar System – which could include the Jovian and Cronian moons.
Compared to other locations in the Solar System – like the Jovian system – Saturn’s largest moons are exposed to considerably less radiation. For instance, Jupiter’s moons of Io, Ganymede and Europa are all subject to intense radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field – ranging from 3600 to 8 rems day. This amount of exposure would be fatal (or at least very hazardous) to human beings, requiring that significant countermeasures be in place.
In contrast, Saturn’s radiation belts are significantly weaker than Jupiter’s – with an equatorial field strength of 0.2 gauss (20 microtesla) compared to Jupiter’s 4.28 gauss (428 microtesla). This field extends from about 139,000 km from Saturn’s center out to a distance of about 362,000 km – compared to Jupiter’s, which extends to a distance of about 3 million km.
Of Saturn’s largest moons, Mimas and Enceladus fall within this belt, while Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus all have orbits that place them from just outside of Saturn’s radiation belts to well beyond it. Titan, for example, orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,221,870 km, putting it safely beyond the reach of the gas giant’s energetic particles. And its thick atmosphere may be enough to shield residents from cosmic rays.
In addition, frozen volatiles and methane harvested from Saturn’s moons could be used for the sake of terraforming other locations in the Solar System. In the case of Mars, nitrogen, ammonia and methane have been suggested as a means of thickening the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect to warm the planet. This would cause water ice and frozen CO² at the poles to sublimate – creating a self-sustaining process of ecological change.
Colonies on Saturn’s moons could also serve as bases for harvesting deuterium and helium-3 from Saturn’s atmosphere. The abundant sources of water ice on these moons could also be used to make rocket fuel, thus serving as stopover and refueling points. In this way, a colonizing the Saturn system could fuel Earth’s economy, and the facilitate exploration deeper into the outer Solar System.
Naturally, there are numerous challenges to colonizing Saturn’s moons. These include the distance involved, the necessary resources and infrastructure, and the natural hazards colonies on these moons would have to deal with. For starters, while Saturn may be abundant in resources and closer to Earth than either Uranus or Neptune, it is still very far.
On average, Saturn is approximately 1,429 billion km away from Earth; or ~8.5 AU, the equivalent of eight and a half times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. To put that in perspective, it took the Voyager 1 probe roughly thirty-eight months to reach the Saturn system from Earth. For crewed spacecraft, carrying colonists and all the equipment needed to colonize the surface, it would take considerably longer to get there.
These ships, in order to avoid being overly large and expensive, would need to rely on cryogenics or hibernation-related technology in order to save room on storage and accommodations. While this sort of technology is being investigated for crewed missions to Mars, it is still very much in the research and development phase.
Any vessels involved in the colonization efforts, or used to ship resources to and from the Cronian system, would also need to have advanced propulsion systems to ensure that they could make the trips in a realistic amount of time. Given the distances involved, this would likely require rockets that used nuclear-thermal propulsion, or something even more advanced (like anti-matter rockets).
And while the former is technically feasible, no such propulsion systems have been built just yet. Anything more advanced would require many more years of research and development, and a major commitment in resources. All of this, in turn, raises the crucial issue of infrastructure.
Basically, any fleet operating between Earth and Saturn would require a network of bases between here and there to keep them supplied and fueled. So really, any plans to colonize Saturn’s moons would have to wait upon the creation of permanent bases on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and most likely the Jovian moons. This process would be punitively expensive by current standards and (again) would require a fleet of ships with advanced drive systems.
And while radiation is not a major threat in the Cronian system (unlike around Jupiter), the moons have been subject to a great deal of impacts over the course of their history. As a result, any settlements built on the surface would likely need additional protection in orbit, like a string of defensive satellites that could redirect comets and asteroids before they reached orbit.
Given its abundant resources, and the opportunities it would present for exploring deeper into the Solar System (and maybe even beyond), Saturn and its system of moons is nothing short of a major prize. On top of that, the prospect of colonizing there is a lot more appealing than other locations that come with greater hazards (i.e. Jupiter’s moons).
However, such an effort would be daunting and would require a massive multi-generational commitment. And any such effort would most likely have to wait upon the construction of colonies and/or bases in locations closer to Earth first – such as on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and around Jupiter. But we can certainly hold out hope for the long run, can’t we?