The Universe Seen From Saturn, Uranus, Neptune And Pluto
Alien Skies: The Universe Seen by Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto
Dawns and sunsets of all colors… Celestial bodies with ever-changing speeds, masses, shapes and volumes… All this is our Solar System.
Also in this third and last part of our journey we will try to put together science and imagination, visiting skies completely alien to our experiences as inhabitants of planet Earth.
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Just as we did for Jupiter, we will have to imagine Saturn somehow floating above its clouds to be able to see what is happening in its sky. And if we could really do that, we would probably see it slowly fade from the blue of the high atmosphere to the black of the surrounding space. The composition of Saturn’s atmosphere is in fact similar to that of Jupiter, with a prevalence of molecular hydrogen and helium.
Seen from there, the Sun is about 100 times less bright than it appears from the Earth, and its disc, with an angular diameter of just 3.4 arcminutes, from those distances begins to be appreciable with difficulty. As well as you can see with difficulty the Earth, which still shines like a star of second magnitude, but is separated from the Sun a little more than 6°…
The larger moons of Saturn, although less conspicuous than those of Jupiter, form an overall necklace of remarkably luminous objects. In order of magnitude: Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus and Mimas.
The apparent dimensions speak to us of satellites at most half the size of our Moon, but it is also true that six of them, those we have listed, have an apparent brightness around magnitude -7, or on average five to ten times brighter than Venus seen from Earth! Remarkable are the cases of Enceladus and Tethys, which thanks to a very high albedo (their surfaces are absolutely white) exceed in brightness even the great Titan (5150 km in diameter). Can you imagine the spectacle we could enjoy at the sight of these six moons, bright as headlights, turning in the night sky of Saturn accompanied by the overflowing beauty of the rings that form the background?
Yes, because by far the most spectacular element of Saturn’s sky is obviously that of the rings… An element that if fascinates seen from the “outside” must be even shocking if observed from somewhere on the planet, from where you would see the entire sky crossed by an iridescent arc. The rings become more and more conspicuous as the latitude increases and, consequently, the angle under which they are observed. Seen from the equator they are instead practically invisible because of their incredible subtlety.
During the equinoxes, which happen about every 14 years, the Sun hits the cutting rings and, consequently, the shadow they cast on the planet is minimal. But far from the equinoxes, the rings cast complex and very wide shadows on Saturn.
To be able to observe from the high atmosphere of the planet or from some of its many moons the alternation of shadows and lights on the underlying cloud systems must be an extraordinarily suggestive view; a view that we can say we know well thanks to the interplanetary probes that have visited the planet. Especially thanks to Cassini, who for years wandered around the planet’s satellite system, photographing incredible cosmic landscapes, where moons and rings gave life to geometric shapes of unique beauty.
The great Titan, which has even planetary dimensions, could be in the future an excellent observation point for the first human explorers… but unfortunately, Titan is also the only satellite in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere; so dense that it probably obstructs any kind of astronomical observation.
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