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Galileo Drawing of Saturn

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When Galileo used his telescope in 1610, he saw Saturn.  He thought that the planet was a star and that its rings were two additional stars.  In 1610, when his telescope was more powerful, Galileo made a sketch of what he called Saturn’s arms.

NASA tells us more about what Galileo was actually observing:

Galileo Galilei stumbled across one of the great beauties of our solar system when he turned his telescope to Saturn in 1610.

Unfortunately, his telescope wasn't powerful enough to allow him to really appreciate it.

Thought for centuries to be a perfect sphere like the other planets, Galileo found Saturn had a squashed look when compared to the other planets.

"I discovered another very strange wonder," Galileo wrote in 1610. "The star of Saturn is not a single star, but is a composite of three, which almost touch each other, never change or move relative to each other, and are arranged in a row along the zodiac, the middle one being three times larger than the lateral ones, and they are situated in this form: oOo."

We know now that Galileo was seeing Saturn's magnificent rings, which are not visible to the unaided eye.

The mysterious shape changes that puzzled ancient astronomers were caused by a ring plane crossing - a phenomenon that occurs every 14 to 15 years when Saturn turns its rings edge on to Earth, making them nearly invisible. (Note: The latest cycle will make the rings their thinnest on Sept. 4, 2009).

The vast, thin expanse of debris - ranging in size from a speck of dust to house-sized boulders - is unique in our solar system. All four gas giant planets in our solar system have rings, but none are as complex and vivid as Saturn's.

With today’s much-more powerful observatories, we can see what Galileo could not.  Cassini - one of NASA’s orbiters - took stunning pictures of Saturn and its rings backlit by the Sun.

This image depicts Galileo's famous drawings of Saturn.  The top image dates from 1610.  The bottom drawing is from 1616.


Media Credits

Image of Galileo's 1610 and 1616 Drawings of Saturn; online, courtesy NASA GSFC

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