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Destination: Saturn

Destination: Saturn

Alight to the sixth planet from the sun, a haloed, vaporous tumult of a world that promises to exhilarate your senses and reveal celestial secrets from the Milky Way’s distant past. Rayna Khaitan reports.

Saturn has for centuries been a numinous enigma in the night sky; from its historic, mythological perception as the ominous, evil-eyed figure who could scald onlookers with one swift gaze to its modern-day intrigue surrounding its many dozens of glimmering satellites and dynamically charged magnetosphere.

Deferring only to Jupiter in size, Saturn is the second largest planet in our solar system — with a volume 755 times more massive than the Earth — and bears a similarly Jovian composition of gaseous hydrogen and helium. Volatile at its core and emanating enormous heat, the gas giant’s nebulous surface appears at once luminous and wind-streaked. Meanwhile, its body, swathed in rings of crushed rock and ice, pirouettes with spellbinding velocity, dizzying around its axis in just under 11 hours.

Getting There
Traveling to Saturn will be an unforgettable part of your holiday adventure, and is in no way expeditious. Located past the Asteroid Belt, and ensconced in solar orbit between Jupiter and Uranus, Saturn is a mind-bending 792,948,880 miles from Earth, making for an arduous, seven-year journey that will likely exercise your patience and endurance. (Insider’s tip: A bevy of books and music will prove critical to your sanity and, thusly, will be duly appreciated by your fellow spacecraft mates.)

Once your shuttle arrives in Saturn’s gravitational grasp, you will need to transfer to a smaller vessel (maximum capacity: two persons) specially designed to withstand the planet’s harsh outer atmosphere. There is no turning back at this point, and rest assured, your fancy camera, if not your fledgling soul, will thank you for it.

(Caution! Do take heed of storm alerts. The Dragon Storm espied in 2004 was extraordinarily persistent and dangerous, with unpredictable, fatal plumes and flare-ups.)

What to Expect
Although Saturn generates more energy than it gleans from the sun, its outlying distance from the stellar mass amounts to an average temperature of -288 °F (-178 °C), three times colder than the most frigid temperature noted in Antarctica. Add to that easterly equatorial winds approximating 1,100 mph (500 meters/second), and the climate well surpasses traditional notions of inhabitable environments — sounding downright inhumane. However, offsetting this cacophonous turbulence is Saturn’s surprisingly ethereal form: it boasts the remarkable distinction of being the only planet in our solar system that is less dense than water. So while the climate is undoubtedly severe, the payoff will leave you literally floating — and swirling — in the clouds.

Your Saturnian voyage may seem a futuristic sci-fi tale of the deep-space variety, but its superficial mystique belies a deeper story — one that may date as far back as the origins of the solar system itself. Behold your surroundings, rife with hydrogen and helium, and embodying slight traces of water, methane, and ammonia; and experience the primordial conditions of our solar system.

Meanwhile, Saturn’s largest-known moon, Titan, just one of many in the planet’s complex lunar circuitry, commands a thick, burgeoning atmosphere suggestive of Earth’s newborn years.

Lastly, no visit would be complete without a proper flyby through the gaps and spokes of Saturn’s radiant rings. Navigate your way in and around the A Ring to the Encke Gap and Cassini Division for your best and safest bet, obtaining a close-up view of the formative ring elements: dust-encrusted rock and ice. Godspeed!

Miss the previous Destination: Space? Travel to Pluto, or another top space destination.

For more space-tastic stuff, you can also try:

- News - Snails shot into orbit
- Spoof - The galactic sandwich
- Strange - Strange new worlds
- Straight - The real aliens

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16 Oct 2009
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