Devourer of Children

by Peter Jekel



We dance round in a ring and suppose, While the secret sits in the middle and knows. --Robert Frost.


Saturn has probably inspired more people to pursue a career or hobby of investigating those tiny points of light in the sky. When you point your telescope toward Saturn, you see something that you will never see anywhere else, a planet encircled by a series of rings, much like rings adorning the fingers of a person. Looked at in a textbook, it may not resonate fully but viewed firsthand through a telescope, it is truly awe inspiring and almost certainly unforgettable. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun in our solar system and the second largest in the solar system. It is about 95 times as massive as the planet Earth, but if we had an ocean of water large enough, it would float.  

The rings of Saturn, however, remained hidden from human view until Galileo observed them in 1610. He could not appreciate their true beauty due to the limitations of his telescope. In fact, due to the limitations of his telescope, Galileo thought the rings were not rings at all but were two moons of Saturn. It was not until February 1656 that Dutch mathematician and astronomer, Christian Huygens with his improved telescope, observed the rings in their true glory.

Astronomers continued to look toward the newly discovered ringed planet.  In 1675, Italian astronomer, Giovanni Cassini found that there were gaps between the rings. In 1857, Scottish mathematical physicist, James Maxwell showed mathematically that the rings, though apparently solid, are actually made up of a swarm of smaller particles. Maxwell is perhaps better known, though, for his theory of electromagnetism which predicted that electricity, magnetism and light, including x-rays, gamma rays, radio waves and microwaves, are mere variances of each other.

The actual structure of Saturn itself remains unknown, but it is hypothesized that it has a core made up of iron and nickel as well as silica rock, not unlike that of the Earth’s own core, though this is where the similarity ends. Saturn’s core is actually quite large, up to nine to twenty-two the mass of the Earth with a diameter of about 25,000 kilometers, twice as large as the entire Earth.

Around the metallic core, with the pressures and increasing temperatures that created Saturn's interior, there is thought to be a layer of metallic hydrogen. Metallic hydrogen is a state of hydrogen which acts like an electrical conductor. Metallic hydrogen was first hypothesized in 1935 but it has never been created in the laboratory; pressures required are upwards of hundreds of gigapascals. Imagine this sort of pressure when just one gigapascal is the crushing equivalent of almost 150,000 pounds per square inch. We just don’t have the technology. Surrounding the layer of metallic hydrogen is a layer of liquid hydrogen followed by a gaseous layer which is up to one thousand kilometers thick.  

Saturn is the furthest object in the Solar System that is visible to the naked eye; you will not see the rings, however without telescopic aid. Its name has its origin in ancient Greece; they named it Cronus, a god who according to myth devoured his children. This nomenclature was followed by the Romans who named it after their equivalent god, Saturn. That name sticks today.

Some early writers had their own versions of what Saturn might be like. The short story Micromegas by Voltaire, written in 1752 is about an alien from a planet orbiting Sirius. The alien arrives at Saturn to find its inhabitants are 6000 feet tall (a dwarf by Sirian standards as they are 37 kilometers in height), with 72 senses and live a mere 15000 Earth years (Sirians can expect to live over ten million Earth years). In John Jacob Astor IV’s 1894 novel, Journey in Other Worlds, Saturn is described as a dark, dying world with inhabitants that are giant ghostlike creatures that communicate telepathically and are able to predict the future.

Saturn remained just a wonder of the sky for a number of years. Then the space probes ventured to the ringed planet to see it close up. The first was Pioneer 2 which passed within twenty thousand kilometers of the planet in September 1979. The probe took several photographs of the planet and some of the nearby moons. The next spacecraft that reached Saturn arrived a little over a year later; Voyager 1 reached the Saturn system in November 1980. Voyager 1 was followed less than a year later by Voyager 2, which took close-up pictures of the planet’s atmosphere and rings as well as some of the moons.

 Kim Stanley Robinson went a step beyond unmanned probes in his novel 2312 where he describes a manned expedition to the atmosphere of the ringed planet to search for a missing spacecraft.

The other outer gaseous planets also have rings but it is Saturn’s that are most prominent. The rings are made up mostly of ice particles with a small amount of dust and rocky debris. In Ben Bova’s Tour of the Solar System: Saturn, the ice particles are actually described as living organisms. In Peter Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy the rings of Saturn are a source of nourishment for the eggs of biological starships.

In Larklight, an alternate steampunk history, by Philip Reeve, the First Ones, a race of white spider-like beings that inhabited the solar system prior to planet formation, are said to have their home amongst the rings of Saturn. At least one author, John Varley, saw humans adapting to life in the rings. His short story, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, is about the symbiotic relationship between humans and plants that adapt to life in the rings of Saturn. The unusual title describes the unusual songs created by the symbiotic relationship.

When one looks at the rings of Saturn, it appears that they are all complete rings and number no more than a few. In fact, there are actually more than several rings--there are literally thousands, each relatively thin. In addition to rings, there are radial gaps in some thus creating arcs rather than true rings. Some of the rings are even interwoven with one another, almost like a braid. They extend about 6600 kilometers above the planet’s equator and extend to over 120,000 kilometers. They appear thin when viewed edge-on with a thickness of only 20 meters. Most of the ring’s contents are water ice with traces of tholins and some carbon. One theory is that the rings are the result of a destroyed moon that ventured too close to the planet. A variation of the wandering moon theory is that the rings are the remains of an icy mantle of a large Titan-like moon--Titan is a moon that orbits Saturn--that was torn apart as it spiraled into the planet’s gravitational maw. This theory holds promise since it does explain the lack of silicate material in the ring system; it is mainly made up of icy materials.

Another thought is that they may be the result of leftover material from the original planetary nebula. However, recent research shows that the planet was formed billions of years ago whereas the planetary rings are only hundreds of millions of years old so that this theory has some flaws. Some of the ice in the central rings is formed from water vapour from the geyser emissions from the moon Enceladus but this does not explain all of the rings.

With origins still theoretical, scientists are finding that the rings of Saturn do have an intimate relationship with the moons of Saturn beyond the influence of just Enceladus. Altogether, Saturn has 62 moons with confirmed orbits. Only 53 have been named. Most of the moons are relatively small, since only thirteen have diameters larger than fifty kilometers. A number of the moons actually act as shepherds of the rings controlling not only their motion but their boundaries.

On first observation, it is the rings that intrigue but what about the rest of the planet? Saturn does not seem at first to have the dynamics that are observed in Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere with its constantly shifting clouds and its Giant Red Spot. However, with every observation with improved optics and with every flyby by a space probe, Saturn has demonstrated that it is nothing short of surprising. We are finding that the atmosphere of Saturn is far more active than originally thought.

As the pale yellow-coloured world of Saturn spins on its axis, it is somewhat flattened at its poles so that it is not a sphere but is actually an oblate spheroid. The other gas giants are also slightly oblate due to their rapid rotation, but Saturn takes it to the extreme. The heat that Saturn generates, which can reach temperatures of up to 11700 degrees Celsius at its core, is about 2.5 times more energy than it receives from the Sun. The excess energy is created by slow gravitational compression also known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism. The Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism describes a cooling planet or star which for all intents and purposes is shrinking due to the cooling process. This shrinking, in turn, conversely causes the core to heat up. However, calculations, the energy from this may not be enough to explain the energy surplus. Another theory suggests that more heat is generated by the “raining out” of helium from the planet’s interior. When the helium “rains out” into the lower density hydrogen, the friction creates more heat.

The atmosphere itself is made mainly of hydrogen and helium but there are also trace amounts of ammonia and various hydrocarbons that have been detected. The upper clouds are made mainly of ammonia crystals whereas lower down, clouds are made up of ammonium hydrosulphide and even water.

With the recent observations with Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers found a large white cloud near the equator of Saturn, not observed when Voyager ventured near. It was dubbed the Great White Spot. The Great White Spot is a relatively short-lived storm system that happens probably once per Saturn year which lasts, about thirty Earth years. Other storms have been apparently observed in a seeming cycle, 1876, 1903, 1933 and 1960.

The Great White Spot is certainly not Saturn’s only storm. In 2006, NASA reported that the Cassini spacecraft had discovered an ancient (up to several billion years old) hurricane-like storm, a warm polar vortex unique in the solar system, with winds up to 550 kilometers per hour at the south pole. Warmth is only relative: the vortex reaches -122 degrees Celsius while the average temperature on the rest of Saturn is around -185 degrees Celsius.  What makes this storm unique is that there is a clearly defined eyewall which is a ring of towering thunderstorms where most of the stormy weather happens, swirling around the calm eye of the storm. The lightning found in this region of Saturn is often one thousand times as powerful as anything found on Earth. This is significant, since no other storms anywhere in the solar system other than those on Earth show anything like an eyewall.

The winds of Saturn are the second fastest in the solar system (on most planets, winds like this would be considered a storm) but still play second fiddle to the more rapid winds of Neptune. From Voyager data, peak wind speeds moved in an easterly direction at a rate of 1800 kilometers per hour. Further oddities of the planet’s atmosphere were observed during the Cassini spacecraft’s encounter with Saturn in 2007. It displayed a bright blue colour in the northern hemisphere caused by the same phenomenon that makes our own skies here on Earth blue, the scattering of light with blue dominating over other colours of the spectrum.

The northern pole of Saturn has its surprises as well. There is a hexagonal feature in the northern polar region. It rotates at a rate of 10 hours, 39 minutes and 24 seconds which happens to be equivalent to the radio emission from the planet. The hexagonal feature does not shift in the atmosphere like other clouds do. In fact, it is so perfect, that it appears almost artificial. Where this feature came from is a matter of speculation at this time. One thought is that it is due to a phenomenon that scientists have been able to replicate in the laboratory. Through the differential rotation of fluids, scientists have been able to create similar shapes. Unfortunately, this probably eliminates the more intriguing theory of artificial origin. But then again?

The wonders of the atmosphere of Saturn is not done with its surprises either. Cassini observed a feature known as the “String of Pearls” found in the northern hemisphere. The more than two dozen of the “pearls” are found at forty degrees North latitude and spaced at approximately three and half degrees longitude and stretch for up to sixty thousand kilometers. Though the “pearls” appear to be a cloud formation, it is instead a train of clearings in the clouds lit by the internal heat of Saturn.

Science fiction writers have also added to the wonders of the planet’s atmosphere by suggesting that life may be able to exist there.  Robert Forward wrote Saturn Rukh, which describes enormous stingray shaped aliens that live within the clouds. Roger Zelazney wrote the short story, Dreadsong, which describes life forms that could live in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Other authors have seen the atmosphere as being a potential site for human colonization. Michael McCollum wrote The Clouds of Saturn, about a Saturn that is a new home for humanity after the Earth is burned away by our flaring Sun in its death throes. Charles Stross’ Accelerando, which is a series of interconnected short stories in which the planets are dismantled into a Matrioshka Brain has humans colonizing the upper atmosphere of Saturn. A Matrioshka Brain is a hypothetical megastructure that for all intents and purposes is an immense computer system, also referred to as the singularity, that utilizes the entire energy output of a star to power its processes.

Like the other gaseous planets and Earth, Saturn does possess a magnetic field. In Saturn’s case, it is a simplistic symmetrical structure nothing like the complex structure of its larger neighbor Jupiter’s magnetic field. The field is probably generated by currents within the liquid metallic hydrogen layer which creates a dynamo. Like other planets with magnetic fields, the field on Saturn allows the planet to create aurorae when charged particles of the Sun interact with the magnetic field.

If we were ever able to land on Saturn and inhabit different latitudes, we would experience some variance of the day. Observations of Saturn shows that the visible features all rotate at different rate all dependent on the different latitudes. The features are divided into three systems. System One is found in the equatorial zone has a period of ten hours and fourteen minutes. System Two is found both in the southern and northern hemisphere and rotates at a period of 10 hours, 38 minutes and 24 seconds. In System Three, the rate is 10 hours 39 minutes and 22.4 seconds which equates with the radio emissions of the planet.

As scientists continue to sift through the data obtained from observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and the various probes that have ventured to the ringed world, more surprises continue to manifest themselves. What once was merely a gem in the sky and an inspiration for many astronomers and space scientists has now been promoted into an intriguing world in its own right.

Further Reading:

Alexander, A. 1962. The Planet Saturn. Faber and Faber.

Anderson, J. and Schubert, G. 2007. Saturn’s gravitational field, internal rotation and interior structure. Science. 317(5843):1384-1387.

Anguiar, A. 2010. A laboratory model of Saturn’s North Polar Hexagon. Icarus. 206(2):755-763.

Arridge, C. et al. 2007. Mass of Saturn’s magnetodisc: Cassini observations. Geophysical Research Letters. 34:L09108.

Baines, K. et al. 2009. Saturn’s north polar cyclone and hexagon at depth revealed by Cassini/VIMS. Planetary and Space Science. 57(14-15):1671-1681.

Bhardwaj, A. and Gladstone, G. 2000. Auroral emissions of the giant planets. Reviews of Geophysics. 38(3):295-353.

Bunce, E. et al. 2007. Cassini observations of the variation of Saturn’s ring current parameters with system size. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. 112(A10): A10202.

Clarke, J. et al. 2005. Morphological differences between Saturn’s ultraviolet aurorae and those of Earth and Jupiter. Nature. 433:717-719.

Courtin, R. et al. 1984. The Composition of Saturn’s Atmosphere at Temperature Northern Latitudes from Voyager IRIS Spectra. The Astrophysical Journal. 287:899-916.

Cowley, S. et al. 2008. Auroral current systems in Saturn’s magnetosphere: comparison of theoretical models with Cassini and HST observations. Annales Geophyicae. 26:2613-2630.

Dougherty, M. et al. (eds). 2009. Saturn from Cassini-Huygens. Springer.

Giampieri, G. et al. 2006. A regular period for Saturn’s magnetic field that may track its internal rotation. Nature. 441:62-64.

Godfrey, D. 1988. A hexagonal feature around Saturn’s North Pole. Icarus. 76(2):335-356.

Godfrey, D. 1990. The Rotation Period of Saturn’s Polar Hexagon. Science. 247(4947):1206-1208.

Gurnett, D. et al. 2005. Radio and Plasma Wave Observations at Saturn from Cassini’s Approach and First Orbit. Science. 307(5713):1255-1259.

Gurnett, D. et al. 2007. The Variable Rotation Period of the Inner Region of Saturn’s Plasma Disc. Science. 316(5823):442-445.

Harland, David. 2002. Mission to Saturn: Cassini and the Hugyens Probe. Springer.

Jacobson, R. et al. 2006. The Gravity Field of the Saturnian System from Satellite Observations and Spacecraft Tracking Data. The Astronomical Journal. 132(6):2520-2526.

Kerr, R. 2008. Saturn’s Rings Look Ancient Again. Science. 319(5859):21.

Kivelson, Margaret. 2005. The current systems of the Jovian magnetosphere and ionosphere and predictions for Saturn. Space Science Reviews. 116(1-2):299-318.

Krinigis, S. et al. 2007. A dynamic, rotating ring current around Saturn. Nature. 450:1050-1053.

Lovett, L. et al. 2006. Saturn: A New View. Abrams.

Paranicas, C. et al. 2007. Sources and losses of energetic protons in Saturn’s magnetosphere. Icarus. 197(2):519-525.

Perez-Hoyos, S. 2005. Saturn’s cloud structure and temporal evolution from ten years of Hubble Space Telescope images (1994-2003). Icarus. 176(1):155-174.

Porco, C. et al. 2005. Cassini Imaging Science: Initial Results on Saturn’s Rings and Small Satellites. Science. 307(5713):1226-1236.

Porco, C. et al. 2007. Saturn’s Small Inner Satellites: Clues to Their Origins. Science. 318(5856):1602-1607.

Poulet, F. and Cuzzi, J. 2002. The Composition of Saturn’s Rings. Icarus. 160(2):350-358.

Sanchez-Lavega, A. et al. 1993. Ground-based observations of Saturn’s north polar SPOT and hexagon. Science. 260(5106):329-332.

Spahn, F. et al. 2006. Cassini Dust Measurements at Enceladus and Implications for the Origin of the E Ring. Science. 311(5766):1416-1418.

Sremcevic, M. et al. 2007. A belt of moonlets in Saturn’s A ring. Nature. 449:1019-1021.

Stallard, T. et al. 2008. Jovian-like aurorae on Saturn. Nature. 453:1083-1085.

Tiscareno, M. et al. 2006. 100-metre-diameter moonlets in Saturn’s A ring from observations of ‘propeller’ structures. Nature. 440:648-650.

Tiscareno, M. et al. 2008. The population of propellers in Saturn’s A Ring. Astronomical Journal. 135(3):1083-1091. 




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