Gorgeous Saturn Rains Helium

The father of Jupiter, God of agriculture and wealth in Roman mythology, Saturn is probably #1 on most everyone’s list of favorite celestial objects to view. It is one of those “oh gosh!” things that stand out for anyone who has see it in a telescope.

Nancy and I spent time in July/August visiting our extensive and widespread families in Michigan.  During our time there I had few opportunities to use my travel scope.  The challenge is so many very tall trees and the places we stayed were mostly full of them.

While in the Upper Peninsula, we stayed in a small enclave of log cabins on the Menominee River. Some folks from Wisconsin had set up a few cabins away and the space between them and the next cabin was just right for me to set up and catch Saturn, maybe Jupiter too.  So, I asked if they were OK with me setting up a telescope and I received a loud affirmative!

Before dark I schlepped my equipment to the opening, set up, and told my new friends I would be back around 10pm.  We would all see Saturn and have a beverage.  Well, I’m sure plenty of beverages were consumed between then and 10 pm as everyone was quite happy to see me return.  Saturn made its way into a clearing in the trees and while Earth’s atmosphere was turbulent, making Saturn pop in and out of focus, it still looked good.  The guys were all impressed, saying “awesome”.  The ladies however just about jumped out of their shoes, one saying something like “this is the coolest thing I have seen…ever!”  She was beside herself.  That was worth the effort.

Saturn, like Jupiter, is a massive planet.  It is mostly hydrogen and helium, with a little ammonia, hydrocarbons, water, and sulfurous gases that make its cloud belts yellowish tan.  Well below the clouds it’s a different story, as the atmosphere becomes molecular hydrogen and clears.  Going deeper into Saturn’s atmosphere things start to get interesting again, as pressure rises quickly.

Deep down near the outer core, helium forms into a drizzle of rain and gets slushy.  The outer core is composed of hydrogen gas compressed so much it becomes a liquid metal.  Finally, we arrive at the inner core, which is still mysterious but thought to be composed of ice and rock.  I have difficulty imagining ice and rock under such extreme pressure.

The action of liquid metallic hydrogen and slushy helium sliding past each other as Saturn spins on its axis has been proposed as the origin of Saturn’s magnetic field.

What’s in the Sky?

Summers on the wane but the Summer Triangle (an asterism) is high overhead. It’s made of three bright stars; Vega (in Lyra), is brightest of the three and almost directly overhead, Deneb (in Cygnus) is a little northeast of Vega, and Altair (in Aquila) is to the south of them.