Moon and Saturn

StarDate: September 9, 2013

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Saturn is the second-largest planet in the solar system. It’s almost 10 times wider than Earth, and it has almost 90 times as much surface area. Yet in that entire expanse, you won’t find a single feature with a name.

That’s because there are no features — at least ones that stick around. Saturn is a ball of gas wrapped around a small, dense core. There’s no visible surface, so there are no mountains, valleys, craters, or other features to name.

What we do see are clouds at the top of Saturn’s thick atmosphere. They’re stretched into globe-circling bands by the planet’s rotation. Giant thunderstorms boil up from deep within the atmosphere, creating powerful lightning displays. Other storms whirl through the atmosphere for weeks before they dissipate. None of those features is permanent, though — leaving Saturn with nothing to name.

Its rings are another matter. When the rings were first seen, they were assigned letters of the alphabet. Divisions between the rings were named for astronomers who studied Saturn. Later, spacecraft revealed that the named rings are made up of thousands of smaller rings. Those rings aren’t named, but many of the gaps between them are. The divisions and gaps are named for such legendary astronomers as Cassini, Herschel, Huygens, and Kuiper — all of whom studied ephemeral Saturn.

Saturn is in good view early this evening. It looks like a bright golden star close to the right of the crescent Moon.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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

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