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USU astronomer gives tour of the planet Saturn

Published March 21, 2009 6:49 pm

Discovery » Scientists study ringed planet to understand Earth
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The north pole of Saturn has a constant hurricane located above it. If you were to stand in its eye and look up, you'd see what's equivalent to the Northern Lights on Earth.

The ability to imagine what life is like on Saturn, which is the only other planet to have hurricanes with eyes in them, may one day help scientists understand our home planet.

"We explore other planets not just because we want to understand more about them, but because we want to understand more about life on Earth," said Shane Larson, a Utah State University assistant professor of physics at a sold-out lecture Saturday afternoon at Clark Planetarium.

Larson used the full dome theater to display images of the planet Saturn, its rings and its moons, and spoke about the planet Saturn. While it was discovered 400 years ago by Galileo Galilei, scientists are still making discoveries about the ringed planet today.

This year marks the International Year of Astronomy, honoring the Italian who first turned a telescope to the sky and documented what he saw. Larson focused on how far humanity has come in understanding the ringed planet by putting aside Earth-bound telescopes and sending instruments to the far reaches of our solar system. The latest spacecraft, called Cassini, has spent about five years sending back data and images for scientists to analyze.

However, many mysteries remain.

One of the biggest centers around the largest feature of the planet, its rings.

They range in width from 30 feet to as thick as Salt Lake City's skyscrapers are tall. Still, spacecraft flying by have a nearly impossible time photographing them at a side angle.

"Imagine driving down I-15 at full speed, whipping out your camera and taking a picture of a single dash on the road," he said. "It's not an easy thing to do."

Mystery also surrounds the 61 documented moons of Saturn. Scientists were able to get a 90-minute view of the surface of the largest moon, Titan, by having Cassini drop the Huygens probe. It revealed lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and it's the only moon in the solar system to have an atmosphere of its own, Larson said.

Scientists believe it may be "prebiotic," meaning it may be able to support life one day. Researchers hope to send out another probe that will stay longer on the moon.

"It will be about 2030, just when some of you young people are getting your doctorates," he said. "You can be the ones to do that research."

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