What makes Saturn different from any other planet?
It would be tempting to just say that Saturn is the large planet with the rings, and leave it at that. This would be enough to distinguish the planet from others, for some people. But there are other planets with discernible rings.
However, this large planet has an asteroid ring or belt, something no other planet has. The matter in this unique ring may have been created when an object struck the surface and scattered into an orbit or ring around Saturn.
So, is that enough to satisfy our question?
Probably not, because astronomers have discovered that Saturn’s relation to our Sun is a bit different than other planets. One explanation simply states that it receives varying amounts of sunlight and heat. Saturn also has an interesting moon network that many observers believe is continually changing. This would make it much different from other planets, especially Earth.
Scientists created the Cassini spacecraft and sent it to orbit Saturn in 2004. The photos and information provided an amazing study of the rings and also identified several orbiting bodies that were not known about before. Some of these new objects are relatively small, in astronomical terms. Scientists found them to be no more than five miles across. In addition, they appear to be chunks of rock and other matter. They’re not round at all.
What’s in a Name?
Like other planets, Saturn got its name from a Roman god. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. The planet gives its name to one of the days of our week (Saturday). Here are some other interesting tidbits about this huge, beautiful planet:
• Human beings have observed Saturn for thousands of years. The famous scientist Galileo is believed to be the first to see it through a telescope (1610).
• Until just a few years ago, scientists believed that Saturn was the only planet with rings. But new technology revealed similar rings around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.
• The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) first sent a spacecraft to explore Saturn in 1979.
• The planet has a distinct flat appearance due to its quick rotation and the composition of its mass. It is the least dense of all the planets.
Saturn has a rocky core and most of its mass is hydrogen and helium. Scientists also believe there are traces of water ice on Saturn. One distinction Saturn can claim: It radiates more energy into the space around it than it receives from the Sun, primarily because the inner core of the planet is so hot.
To people observing Saturn from Earth, the rings seem much more solid than they actually are. These rings are composed of small particles that orbit independently. In fact, scientists believe that if all the matter in the rings was compressed it would only occupy a space about 100 kilometers across. As much as it might resemble other planets, Saturn is truly unique in the solar system.