taken 1981 by Voyager 2

Saturn, a gas giant, is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. (Jupiter is larger.) It is located between two other gas giants, Jupiter and Uranus. Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturn is more than 1.4 billion km (885 million miles) from the Sun. Since Saturn is much farther away from the Sun than Earth is, Saturn has a much larger orbit. It takes twenty-nine and a half Earth years for Saturn to orbit the Sun.

A day on Saturn is shorter than a day on Earth. Earth rotates once every twenty-four hours, while one rotation on Saturn takes approximately ten and a half hours.

The planet does not have a solid surface. It is made up of very light gases (hydrogen and helium). Like Jupiter, Saturn has a small core of rock and ice. It is difficult to study the surface of Saturn because it has such a thick atmosphere of swirling clouds caused by strong winds. Wind speeds can reach 1,800 km per hour (1,100 m per hr), much faster than the winds on Jupiter. The swirling spots on this photo are storms on the planet.

photo taken by Cassini spacecraft

Saturn is surrounded by hundreds of rings, made up of pieces of ice, rocks and dust.

illustration of Saturn's rings; NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Some scientists believe the rings are pieces of comets, asteroids, meteors or Saturn's moons. Saturn is called the "jewel of the solar system" because of its beautiful rings.

Saturnís rings backlit by the Sun. (Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Saturn tilts in its orbit. This changes the angle from which we can see the rings. Sometimes the rings are wide and colorful. Then there are times when Saturn's rings seem to disappear. Through a telescope the rings appear as a thin line across the planet. This happens every 15 years because of Saturn's tilt.

NASA Hubble Space Telescope

Saturn's rings and shadow from the largest moon Titan. NASA/HST

As of 2009, there may be as many as 61 moons orbiting Saturn. Titan is the largest moon. Many of the moons are very small.

A spacecraft called Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997. It reached Saturn in July, 2004 and continues to orbit the planet gathering information about Saturn and its moons.

Since early 2005, scientists have been tracking lightning on Saturn. The power of the lightning is said to be approximately 1000 times stronger than the lightning on Earth. Cassini detected a large and very powerful lightning storm on Saturn. A region in Saturn's southern hemisphere is called "Storm Alley".

Dione courtesy of JPL

a computer image of Saturn's moon , Dione, with Saturn and spacecraft Cassini in the background.
"Courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Copyright (c) California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. All rights reserved."


image of Saturn taken by Hubble Space Telescope
Picture was assembled from Voyager 2; obtained August 4, 1981

web page by J.Giannetta
updated April 2009

information from NASA - Our Solar System