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Saturn


Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. It is a gas giant with an average radius about nine times that of Earth. It has only one-eighth the average density of Earth, but with its larger volume Saturn is over 95 times more massive. Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture; its astronomical symbol (♄) represents the god's sickle.

Saturn's interior is probably composed of a core of iron–nickel and rock (silicon and oxygen compounds). This core is surrounded by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen, an intermediate layer of liquid hydrogen and liquid helium, and finally a gaseous outer layer. Saturn has a pale yellow hue due to ammonia crystals in its upper atmosphere. Electrical current within the metallic hydrogen layer is thought to give rise to Saturn's planetary magnetic field, which is weaker than Earth's, but has a magnetic moment 580 times that of Earth due to Saturn's larger size. Saturn's magnetic field strength is around one-twentieth of Jupiter's. The outer atmosphere is generally bland and lacking in contrast, although long-lived features can appear. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h (1,100 mph), higher than on Jupiter, but not as high as those on Neptune.

The planet's most famous feature is its prominent ring system that is composed mostly of ice particles, with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust. At least 62 moons are known to orbit Saturn, of which 53 are officially named. This does not include the hundreds of moonlets in the rings. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and the second-largest in the Solar System, is larger than the planet Mercury, although less massive, and is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere.

Contents

  1. Physical characteristics
  2. Orbit and rotation

Physical characteristics


Composite image comparing the sizes of Saturn and Earth

Saturn is a gas giant because it is predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium. It lacks a definite surface, though it may have a solid core. Saturn's rotation causes it to have the shape of an oblate spheroid; that is, it is flattened at the poles and bulges at its equator. Its equatorial and polar radii differ by almost 10%: 60,268 km versus 54,364 km. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, the other giant planets in the Solar System, are also oblate but to a lesser extent. Saturn is the only planet of the Solar System that is less dense than water—about 30% less. Although Saturn's core is considerably denser than water, the average specific density of the planet is 0.69 g/cm3 due to the atmosphere. Jupiter has 318 times the Earth's mass, and Saturn is 95 times the mass of the Earth. Together, Jupiter and Saturn hold 92% of the total planetary mass in the Solar System.


On 8 January 2015, NASA reported that a team of scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory determined the barycenter of the planet Saturn and its family of moons to within 4 km (2.5 mi) using data from an experiment conducted with the Cassini spacecraft and the Very Large Baseline Array.


Internal structure

Diagram of Saturn, to scale

Despite consisting mostly of hydrogen and helium, most of Saturn's mass is not in the gas phase, because hydrogen becomes a non-ideal liquid when the density is above 0.01 g/cm3, which is reached at a radius containing 99.9% of Saturn's mass. The temperature, pressure, and density inside Saturn all rise steadily toward the core, which causes hydrogen to be a metal in the deeper layers.

Standard planetary models suggest that the interior of Saturn is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded by hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of various volatiles. This core is similar in composition to the Earth, but more dense. Examination of Saturn's gravitational moment, in combination with physical models of the interior, has allowed constraints to be placed on the mass of Saturn's core. In 2004, scientists estimated that the core must be 9–22 times the mass of the Earth, which corresponds to a diameter of about 25,000 km.This is surrounded by a thicker liquid metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a liquid layer of helium-saturated molecular hydrogen that gradually transitions to a gas with increasing altitude. The outermost layer spans 1,000 km and consists of gas.

Saturn has a hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at its core, and it radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Jupiter's thermal energy is generated by the Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression, but such a process alone may not be sufficient to explain heat production for Saturn, because it is less massive. An alternative or additional mechanism may be generation of heat through the "raining out" of droplets of helium deep in Saturn's interior. As the droplets descend through the lower-density hydrogen, the process releases heat by friction and leaves Saturn's outer layers depleted of helium.These descending droplets may have accumulated into a helium shell surrounding the core. Rainfalls of diamonds have been suggested to occur on Saturn, as well as on Jupiter and ice giants Uranus and Neptune.

Atmosphere

The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume.The proportion of helium is significantly deficient compared to the abundance of this element in the Sun. The quantity of elements heavier than helium (metallicity) is not known precisely, but the proportions are assumed to match the primordial abundances from the formation of the Solar System. The total mass of these heavier elements is estimated to be 19–31 times the mass of the Earth, with a significant fraction located in Saturn's core region.

Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been 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. This photochemical cycle is modulated by Saturn's annual seasonal cycle.

Orbit and rotation


Saturn and rings as viewed by the Cassini spacecraft (28 October 2016)

The average distance between Saturn and the Sun is over 1.4 billion kilometers (9 AU). With an average orbital speed of 9.68 km/s,it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days (or about ​29 1⁄2 years), to finish one revolution around the Sun. The elliptical orbit of Saturn is inclined 2.48° relative to the orbital plane of the Earth.The perihelion and aphelion distances are, respectively, 9.195 and 9.957 AU, on average. The visible features on Saturn rotate at different rates depending on latitude and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions (as in Jupiter's case).

Astronomers use three different systems for specifying the rotation rate of Saturn. System I has a period of 10 hr 14 min 00 sec (844.3°/d) and encompasses the Equatorial Zone, the South Equatorial Belt and the North Equatorial Belt. The polar regions are considered to have rotation rates similar to System I. All other Saturnian latitudes, excluding the north and south polar regions, are indicated as System II and have been assigned a rotation period of 10 hr 38 min 25.4 sec (810.76°/d). System III refers to Saturn's internal rotation rate. Based on radio emissions from the planet in the period of the Voyager flybys, it has been assigned a rotation period of 10 hr 39 min 22.4 sec (810.8°/d). Because it is close to System II, it has largely superseded it.

A precise value for the rotation period of the interior remains elusive. While approaching Saturn in 2004, Cassini found that the radio rotation period of Saturn had increased appreciably, to approximately 10 hr 45 min 45 sec (± 36 sec). The latest estimate of Saturn's rotation (as an indicated rotation rate for Saturn as a whole) based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes was reported in September 2007 is 10 hr 32 min 35 sec.

In March 2007, it was found that the variation of radio emissions from the planet did not match Saturn's rotation rate. This variance may be caused by geyser activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The water vapor emitted into Saturn's orbit by this activity becomes charged and creates a drag upon Saturn's magnetic field, slowing its rotation slightly relative to the rotation of the planet.

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