• Oshin Mittal

Do you know: What will a trip to Saturn look like?

In 2017, NASA's Cassini probe sent us our closest view of Saturn as it dove into the planet's stormy atmosphere. And the results were stunning. But what would it be like if humans made the journey in person?

At its nearest Saturn is 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth. So with today's spacecraft technology, we will need about 8 years to make the trip. Finally when we arrive and get our first glimpse of Saturn with our own eyes. It's an enormous planet, second largest in the solar system. In fact over 760 Earths can fit inside it. But hold up, we can't visit Saturn and skip over the best part, its iconic rings. Saturn's rings are almost as wide as the distance between the Earth and the moon, so at first glance, they seem like an easy place to land and explore on foot. Except there's one problem. While they look like giant discs, they are not a solid track at all. Instead, they are made of millions of chunks of ice, some as tiny as dust particles, others as large as buses. But if we were able to hike on one of the Saturn's outermost rings, we will walk about 12 million kilometers to make it around the longest one. That's about 15 round trips from Earth to the moon. Along the way, we will come across tiny moons and spokes of dust levitating about the surface.

Now one might notice that streams of tiny ice particles are also flying off the Saturn rings, heading towards Saturn. That's ring rain. It turns out, Saturn's magnetic fields are slowly but surely draining away the rings, so we would be lucky if we could visit the rings now because every 30 minutes, they lose enough water to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool and if we arrived 300 million years in the future, we will miss them entirely.

Now, let's climb back aboard and visit the planet itself, 2,82,000 kilometers away. As we reach the north pole, we will notice a slight problem with our plan to land on the surface below. There is no surface below. Saturn's made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium gas, which is why it's called the gas giant. 4,000 kilometers above the surface, we hit Saturn's upper atmosphere. As we plummet through the north pole, we will be treated to the sight of magnificent aurora like the one we see in Alaska. It turns out that Saturn's magnetic field generates huge electrical currents, which heats up the atmosphere at the poles. Unfortunately, the electrical activity within this aurora can disrupt our ship's electronics and navigation system so best marvel at a distance.

Next we will hit the troposphere, the part of the atmosphere where weather happens. So watch out, powerful winds may slam into us at nearly 400 m/s. That is around three times stronger than the strongest hurricanes on Earth. All around us, thick yellow clouds give the planet its color. These are filled with ammonia crystals. If you take a sniff, you might be able to smell that distinctive scent but you should probably keep the windows closed. Ammonia is very irritating and could wreak havoc in our respiratory system. Moreover, it's freezing out here, reaching as low as -250 degree Celsius, much colder than the East Antarctic Plateau, the coldest place on Earth.

So now lets head down where it's a bit warmer. Down here, at a depth of 300 kilometers, we reach a layer of water which is of balmy 0 degree Celsius. Now, the deeper we plunge, the higher the pressure is around us. And in this next layer the pressure is so high, it forces those liquid water molecules together creating solid ice. That ice mixes in with surrounding gasses, so get ready to fight through a flurry of hail stones. Hopefully, the ice won't shred our ship to pieces but if we make it through, get ready to go for a swim because 1,000 kilometers into the interior, the pressure is so high that it forces hydrogen molecules together into a liquid which doesn't bode well for us since even the sturdiest submarine would be crushed in these conditions. And if we somehow survive to reach the next layer, we will hit yet another obstacle, a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. The problem here is that this metal can conduct electricity so even if our navigation equipment and electronics escape the aurora upstairs, it's probably down for the count now. But if we could survive here, our final stop might uncover a mystery in the deepest depths of Saturn.

Scientists suspect Saturn has a core made of Iron and Nickel but they are not sure if it is liquid, like the previous layer, or solid like Earth's core. So we will be the lucky ones to find out once and for all. Though, it's over 83,000 degree Celsius in here, hotter than the surface of the Sun and definitely hot enough to dissolve our spacecraft ! Well, it seems that we should leave the Saturn exploration to the unmanned probes after all.