Moon and Saturn

StarDate: June 27, 2009

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The planet Saturn is best known for its broad, beautiful rings. They're made of small particles of ice and rock, each of which orbits Saturn as a tiny moon.

The planet also has plenty of bigger moons -- more than 60, and still counting. They have some of the most lyrical names in the solar system: Pandora, Prometheus, Enceladus, Calypso, and many more. The names come from Greek and Roman mythology. Saturn was the leader of the Titans, the giants who preceded the gods of Olympus. Most of Saturn's moons are named for other Titans or their descendants.

Saturn's biggest moon is known as Titan. It's bigger than our own moon, and it's surrounded by a thick, cold atmosphere that's rich in organic compounds. Orange "smog" hides Titan's surface from view. But the Cassini spacecraft has peered through the smog to discover ice volcanoes, giant dunes, and lakes of liquid methane.

Several of Saturn's other moons are related to the rings. Mimas, for example, orbits in the middle of the rings, and sweeps out a dark gap. Other small moons act as "shepherds" -- their gravity keeps the ring particles in line.

Most of Saturn's outer moons are basically big chunks of rock. Many of them may be asteroids that were captured by the planet's powerful gravity -- adopted moons of a giant planet.

Look for Saturn near our own Moon tonight. They're in the west at nightfall. Saturn looks like a bright golden star to the upper right of the Moon.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2004, 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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