Saturn and its rings are one of the most beautiful sights in the night sky when seen through a telescope. Saturn is like a smaller version of Jupiter, although it does not have the same colorful bands of cloud in its atmosphere. There are cloud features, but they seem to be masked by a high-altitude layer of haze that gives the whole planet a smooth, yellowish look.

Every 30 years or so, a large white spot appears on Saturn. The last one, in 1990, was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. These spots are actually bright clouds that form during summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere. Summer comes only every 30 years on Saturn because that is how long the planet takes to orbit the Sun.

Eighteen moons have been discovered around Saturn, more than for any other planet, and there are probably other small moons yet unseen. The largest of them, Titan, is the only moon in the Solar System with an atmosphere to speak of. The other moons are mostly chunks of ice and rock. One, called Mimas, has a huge crater in it. The meteorite that caused the crater must have almost broken Mimas apart.

Saturn’s Rings: Around Saturn’s middle lies a set of bright rings. At first sight the rings look solid. But in fact they are made up of countless millions of frozen lumps that range in size from snowballs to icebergs. They all orbit Saturn like a swarm of tiny moonlets.

The rings measure 270,000 kilometers (170,000 miles) from side to side, over twice the width of the planet itself. Yet they are no more than a few hundred meters thick. In relation to their width, they are really as thin as a sheet of paper the size of a football field. As seen from Earth, the rings seem to divide into two main bands, each of different brightness. The brightest part is in the middle, called the B ring. Outside is the A ring, and between them is a gap called Cassini’s Division, the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Closest to the planet is the faintest ring of all, called the C ring or crepe ring.

How were the rings of Saturn formed? Even now, scientists are not sure. They could be material left over from the birth of the planet itself. Or they could be the remains of a moon that strayed to close to the planet and broke up. Other theories are that the ring particles came from collisions between moons, or are the remains of comets that crashed into the moons, or broke up after being captured. Perhaps more than one of these causes gave rise to the rings we see today.

This information was taken and slightly modified from the book: (bibliography)

Ridpath, Ian. ATLAS OF STARS AND PLANETS A Beginner’s Guide to the Universe. USA, Facts on File, Inc., 1993.