Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Other King of the Planets

The Other King of the Planets
by Dave Adalian

While Jupiter is regarded as king of the Roman gods and of the planets, he’s actually got a rival in the night sky, Saturn. But, it’s all in the family.

Saturn’s counterpart in Greek mythology, Cronus, was king of the Titans, who were the beings that ruled the Cosmos before the birth of the gods. It was foretold that one of Cronus’ children would replace him as ruler of all that is, but Cronus had a plan to stay in power. He decided to eat his offspring as they were born to his wife Rhea.

Problem solved.

But it wasn’t. When Rhea gave birth to Zeus, the Greek equivalent of Jupiter, instead of giving Zeus to Cronus she gave him a rock, which Cronus swallowed instead. After Zeus was raised by a magic goat, he forced his father to cough up the other gods and took his father’s throne.

Cronus, or Saturn as we know him, is actually larger than his son Jupiter, at least if you count his rings. While Jupiter is some 88,000 miles wide, Saturn’s ring system spans twice that distance at 176,000 miles. Saturn’s disk is 75,000 miles wide.

Saturn, which is the sixth planet out from the Sun, will be at its closest and brightest for the year on the night of Friday, Jan. 27.

Right now, Saturn is in the constellation Cancer, rising just as the Sun is setting. By midnight it reaches its highest point in the sky, shining bright and yellow. Even though Saturn appears so bright, it will still be 755 million miles away when it makes its closest approach to Earth next week.

Besides being the only planet in our system with a set of rings visible from Earth, Saturn is also less dense than regular water. That means if there was an ocean big enough to dunk it in Saturn would float.

Out of the more than 140 moons in the Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan, at 3,200 miles wide, is the second largest, just 80 miles more narrow than the largest, Jupiter’s Ganymede.

Titan and several of Saturn’s other moons and the beautiful rings are visible from Earth through a telescope, but the planet is still a wonder even without one. This will be especially true during the first few days of February when the ringed planet slides into a bright star cluster in Cancer known as the Manger.


This column appeared originally in the Visalia Times-Delta on Jan. 19, 2006.