PHINEAS FAB 5: Lord of the Rings

A giant robot, the Cassini Spacecraft, is orbiting around Saturn right now. Launched in 1997, Cassini/Huygens was the biggest spaceship NASA had ever built. After a six year journey Cassini/Huygens arrived at Saturn and started sending back jaw-dropping pictures of our sixth planet and its moons. Here’s a Phineas Fab-5 to get your curiosity going:

#1. From One Ring, A Whole Bunch
cassini-ringsWhen Galileo first spotted the rings of Saturn, his telescope was so weak telescope he wasn’t perfectly clear about what he was seeing. A later observer saw the rings as a solid disk around the planet. But Mr. Cassini was the first, in 1675, to discover that the ‘disk’ around Saturn was actually multiple rings. As you can see, there are plenty of rings and plenty of gaps. The largest gap between the rings can be seen from telescopes on Earth and is named the “Cassini Division.” The rings are made of little chunks of ice, with some rocks and dust thrown in.

#2 Total ‘Eclipse’ of the Sun
cassini-shadowWe know that an eclipse of the Sun happens when the Moon blocks out the Sun, causing the Moon’s shadow to fall over parts of the surface of the Earth during daytime. For Cassini, it is Saturn itself that comes between the spacecraft and the Sun. It works out pretty well. With the Sun behind Saturn, the rings light up beautifully, revealing some new rings unseen before.

#3 A Storm Brewing
cassini_stormA hurricane rages near Saturn’s north pole with winds over 300 miles per hour and an eye that is over 1,200 miles across. Thats bigger than the distance between New York and Miami. This picture was taken while Cassini was more than 250,000 miles away from the planet, so you know it’s a big storm. The scientists at NASA used special color filtering to process this image in order to make the details of the storm easier to see.

#4 Greetings from Titan
cassini-titanBecause of Titan’s thick atmosphere, we have never been able to see its surface, just clouds. The giant robot, Cassini, circling Saturn launched a small ship, named Huygens, to land on the Saturnian moon. Titan has weather, lakes and rivers and oceans. These are not water lakes, it is liquid methane.

#5 Enceladus Erupts!
cassini-enceladusSaturn’s moon, Enceladus, has over 30 active volcanoes spitting out ice, water and organic material. NASA scientist, Carolyn Porco, head of the Cassini imaging team calls this finding “the most exciting discovery that has ever been made in our Solar System.” The white glow is an eruption on Enceladus seen in visible light.

Fun Phineas Facts
Saturn is the only planet with rings visible to us on Earth, but it is not the only ringed planet. When we sent robots to fly past Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, we found that they all have rings! So Saturn isn’t so weird or unusual as we thought, but she is definitely the Lord of the Rings.


Photo Credits: NASA/JPL

Cassini Mission – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“Saturnalia” by Paul Raeburn, Discover Magazine, March 2013.

European Space Agency: Cassini-Huygens

Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations