Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun, is named for the Roman god of agriculture.
In Greek mythology, Saturn became the ruler of the universe when he led a successful rebellion against his father, Uranus.
Man's fascination with Saturn started in 1610, when Galileo pointed his crude telescope towards the most distant of the known planets. He knew that he was seeing something very different but his meager 20X telescope didn't give him a very sharp image.
Galileo never did realize that Saturn had rings. His best drawings depicted a sphere with handles, something like a sugar bowl. Saturn's form lies totally outside human experience. There simply is no earthy example of a globe surrounded by unattached rings.
Today, even the most inexpensive department-store telescope easily reveals Saturn's glorious rings. The only image-spoiling interference is the frequent turbulence of Earth's atmosphere. If you encounter "poor seeing," wait for a night when stars aren't twinkling and planetary images are rock-steady.
The ringed planet's meandering is predictable and simple.
- Each year, as Earth revolves around the Sun, we spend a month or two close to Saturn—always at a time when the three bodies form a straight line, with our world sandwiched in the middle, in a configuration called opposition.
- Then we move on, whirl around the Sun once more, and again approach Saturn.
- Saturn, however, is a very slow-moving planet. In its own 29 1/2-year orbit, Saturn inches forward ever so slightly, so that our rendezvous occurs about 2 weeks later each year.
See our free monthly Sky Watch to see when Saturn is visible in the skies.
More fun facts about Saturn:
- Saturn is the second-largest planet in the solar system. More than nine Earths would fit across Saturn.
- Saturn is hot on the inside but cold on the outside. Its core temperature is about 21,150°F. The average temperature on Saturn is -280°F.
- Hold on to your hat! Winds blow at up to 11,000 miles per hour on Saturn.
- Moonstruck? Saturn has 56 moons (and counting!). Titan is Saturn's largest moon.
- Saturn is mostly gas and the least dense of all the planets. If you could put Saturn into a huge swimming pool, it would float.
- The unattached rings of Saturn are composed of billions of pieces of ice, dust, and rock ranging in size from as tiny as a grain of salt to as big as a house.
Saturn has been visited by several probes. In 2004, Cassini started on a four-year mission to explore the planet, its rings, and its moons. See NASA's photos.