Saturn is the last of the Classical Planets, those bright wandering stars which our distant ancestors thousands of years ago tried to explain with stories of gods and heroes. As the most distant of the five, it moves the slowest, shining with a dusty beige light. The Greeks and Romans recognised it as the leader of the Titans by its stately motion and it’s unassuming appearance.
Saturn was the Roman name for Cronus, who was one of the Titans born to Uranus and Gaia, the embodiments of Heaven and Earth. Before the Titans, Gaia bore Uranus three one-eyed giants called Cyclops, and before them came three monstrous creatures with fifty heads and one hundred hands. Uranus hated these first monsters, and imprisoned each one beneath the surface of the Earth as they were born. Gaia was so enraged by this unfatherly behaviour that she begged her other children to help her change things. Only one of the Titans responded to her pleas: Cronus. Lying in wait for his father, he ambushed him and castrated him with a sickle. Having deposed his father, Saturn ascended to be the ruler of the universe for untold ages. But Uranus and Gaia had one final message for him: a prophesy that, as he had deposed his father, so would he be dethroned by one of his own children.
So Cronus, or Saturn, developed a nasty habit of eating his children at birth to ensure that they could never grow up to fulfill the prophecy. After the birth and consumption of Vesta, Ceres, Juno, Neptune and Pluto, his wife (Rhea) decided she must save at least one of her offspring. So when Jupiter was born, she hid him on the island of Crete and wrapped his swaddling clothes around a rock. When Saturn came to devour his newest child, he snatched up the rock and swallowed it whole, not realising that he had been deceived.
Young Jupiter eventually grew up and became Saturn’s cup bearer. With the help of his grandmother, Gaia, he was able to slip a potion into Saturn’s drink which causes him to vomit up his five other children (who were all still alive in his stomach). With his five siblings, Jupiter declared war against Saturn and the rest of the Titans which raged long and hard. Jupiter turned out to be the superior leader, persuading the Cyclops’ and one of the Titans to fight on his side and eventually Saturn was defeated. Jupiter and his siblings (collectively called The Olympians) assumed mastery of the universe, and Saturn fled to Rome.
While in Rome, Saturn imparted his wisdom to the mortals. He gave them the gifts of wisdom and agriculture, creating civilisation and a golden age of plenty and equality. This age was characterised by a complete lack of social distinctions. The Romans honoured Saturn by naming a day after him (Saturday) and with the week-long festival of Saturnalia, held over the winter solstice in memory of the golden age. During this time no war could be declared, slaves and masters ate at the same table, executions were postponed, and it was a season for giving gifts. This was a time of total abandon and merry making. It refreshed the idea of equality, of a time when all men were on the same level. But when the festival ended, the tax collectors appeared and all money owed out to government, landlords, or lenders had to be accounted for.
In 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his telescope towards Saturn, he was surprised to find that it did not appear as a disk, like the other planets he had examined. Instead, it seemed to have two protuberances, like a handle on each side. Two years later he looked again and was astonished to find that these features had disappeared. When he looked again in 1610, this time with a better telescope, he had a much better view, which he sketched. It was not until 1655 when Christian Huygens, using a telescope of his own new design, was able to see that the mystery objects were in fact one single ring encircling the planet. Over time, astronomers made better and better observations, teasing out more and more detail of the rings until finally Voyager 1 returned close-up photographs of the rings, revealing a pattern of thousands of concentric circles, with almost infinite complexity.
It was known from fairly early on that the rings could not be solid objects. The new discovered laws of gravity and orbital motion proved that solid rings would be torn to pieces by tidal forces, but a vast cloud of small orbiting objects arranged into a disc was quite feasible. This theory was later shown to be true, and we now know that the rings are composed of countless million of small fragments of rock and ice, kept in place by the subtle gravitational influence of various tiny moonlets orbiting in the plane of the rings. The Cassini probe continues to reveal more strange and fascinating details of the incredibly complex dynamics of Saturn’s ring system.
Saturn is the second largest of the gas giants, with a mass slightly less than a third of Jupiter’s but almost one hundred times that of Earth. In terms of diameter, it only slightly smaller than Jupiter, meaning that Saturn has an extremely low density. If you could find a large enough ocean, Saturn would actually float in water! As a gas giant, Saturn has a lot in common with Jupiter: It rotates extremely fast (it’s day is only slightly longer than Jupiter’s, at about ten and a half hours long), it’s atmospheric surface is marked with a system of bands (although they are much less colourful and obvious than Jupiter’s), and it has a vast swarm of moons: sixty at the most recent count! It also has the same basic construction as Jupiter, being composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, compressed into a soupy liquid about a third of the way down from the ‘surface’ and then to a metallic solid at the core.
Saturn is probably the most photogenic of all the planets, with it’s soft tan colour and delicate ring structure giving it an ethereal beauty. Even through a small telescope, it never fails to amaze casual viewer upon seeing it for the first time. It is one of my personal favourite objects to track from night to night, and is the undisputed crown jewel of the Solar System.
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