The Ringed Menace
When it comes to the planets in our solar system, the one that’s arguably the most iconic and recognisable is Saturn. Graced with a beautiful ring of ice and swarming with moons, Saturn is a mysterious and dangerous planet, one that we see in more detail across this educational hour with Brian Cox.
Despite seeming to be relatively calm in nature, the reality is that Saturn has gone through some of the most radical changes over the years. Thanks to data from both the Voyager and Cassini space missions, and accompanying narration from Brian Cox himself, we piece together the chaotic history of this planet. Compared to Earth, Saturn is almost completely alien to us, especially with it being made up almost entirely of atmosphere.
4.6 billion years ago it wasn’t like this though, as we explore its origins which begun almost exclusively made up of rock. Over time though the planet changed into a gas giant, thanks in part to its placement in the solar system.
From here the episode then cuts to archival footage of Voyager 2 on its mission to Saturn. As it turns out, the upper atmosphere is made up almost exclusively of Helium and Hydrogen. Unlike Earth, whose storm systems are driven primarily by the Sun, on Saturn it’s a different story altogether. After seeing what drives this, we then explore the rings themselves and what makes the ice so reflective. The answer comes from one of the most ambitious missions ever – Cassini.
Designed to enter Saturn’s atmosphere and figure out more about the rings, Cassini’s 20 year journey saw 13 of those spent inside Saturn’s atmosphere. This then leads nicely on to Saturn’s many moons where we examine their topography and diverse landscapes in more detail. Leading theorists also believe there used to be another moon in orbit around the time of the dinosaurs but since then Saturn has consumed it entirely.
The episode then ends with Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons that may hold life. With a size equivalent to Iceland, the surface of this moon is primarily made up exclusively of ice. Under the thick glacial layers though is something far more fascinating. Cassini has discovered a sub-surface ocean leaking into space which can only come from geothermal vents. This poses a very interesting question around whether we’re alone in the universe or not, with the liklihood of it housing very basic life a real possibility. For now though, our journey to Saturn has only just begun.
We then end with the usual Inside The Planets segment where we learn more about Cassini and the inevitable fate of Saturn’s rings which will be completely gone in 100 million years.
Once again The Planets delivers a fascinating glimpse at one of the most iconic planets in our solar system. The mix of Brian Cox’s narration, on-location segments and CGI footage combine to make The Planets one of the best documentaries of the year. Each episode sticks to the same fundamental structure but with enough differences and originality to make each standalone segment unique in its own right. With the promise of the other outer planets being explored next week, The Planets looks set to continue its voyage across the breadth of our beautiful solar system.