You've probably used the word “awesome” a hundred times to describe anything from the graphics in a new video game to the jelly filling in your favorite donut, but you never knew the word’s true meaning until you pull into the shade of Saturn’s rings. More than 155,000 miles (250,000 kilometers) wide, dappled with spokes that rotate at different rates, Saturn’s awe-inspiring ring system is the most complex of all the planets. If Earth is the jewel in the solar system, then Saturn wears the crown.
The rings lose none of their luster when seen up close. What appears as a solid disc from a distance is actually a glittering shower of ice and rock. And although the rings stretch almost as far into space as the distance between the Earth and the moon, they’re incredibly thin—typically about 30 feet (10 meters) wide. Astronomers believe Saturn’s rings formed from bits of asteroids and comets that shattered before they reached the planet. Swoop low over Saturn’s atmosphere and you might watch two of the planet’s moons rise within gaps in the rings.
You couldn’t watch this moonrise from the planet’s surface, though. Like Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, Saturn is a gas giant, a ball of mostly hydrogen and helium more than 750 times the size of Earth. Its yellow color comes from ammonia crystals in the upper atmosphere, which is home to electrical storms the size of the United States. Steer clear of those lightning strikes. They’re a thousand times more powerful than Earth’s. And, yes, they’re awesome.