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Review: The Beauty of Saturn, Its Rings and Its Moons


 

By Alan Rude

     Nicole Mortillaro, author of “Saturn--Exploring the Mystery of the Ringed Planet” (Firefly, $29.95), is a Canadian amateur astronomer and children’s book editor who’s written a book for all ages about the glorious, ringed planet.

     Illustrated with beautiful and magnificent photographs from the early Pioneer and Voyager probes, the Hubble and especially the more recent Cassini-Huygens mission still underway, her effort has the look of a coffee-table book.  What sets it apart from that genre is the accompanying text, which is both clear and scientific (although her copy editor should have eliminated overuse of words such as “enigmatic”). 

     In addition to Saturn, the book concentrates on its rings and moon systems. On the planet, Cassini-Huygens sighted what’s believed to be the most violent storm in the solar system, a more than 340 mph hurricane with an eye wall and vortex.

     There are splendid color photographs of the rings, which are far more complicated than imagined. There may be millions of tiny moonlets in Saturn’s ring.

     The section on the moons is the most interesting part of the book. The celebrity here is Titan, second largest in the solar system after Jupiter’s Ganymede. On January 14, 2005, Huygens landed on Titan, sending back astonishing pictures of the surface. The topography, which appears similar to Earth’s mountains, is pictured in all its red-brown glory. There’s also an image of Titan’s liquid-methane lakes, looking like bodies of water as seen on Earth from an orbiting satellite.

     In the section “Curious Moons,” Mortillaro gives us photographs of other interesting and major Saturnian moons, such as Hyperion, resembling a giant sponge; pockmarked Phoebe, and Tethys with its unusually bright crater floors.  The most interesting of these lesser satellites is Enceladus. In 2005, when Cassini came within 99 miles of the moon, it collected images of water vapor and ice particles erupting from the surface. It was discovered that the temperature at Enceladus’ South Pole was 100 degrees and that there was evidence of simple carbons. So there’s a question whether Enceladus could harbor simple life.

     No mission has contributed as much as Cassini-Huygens to the knowledge of the Saturn system, and in 2008 it was extended for another four years. Mortillaro outlines the scientific advances resulting from the mission, and has even more strikingly captured in splendid photographs the beauty of Saturn, its rings and its moons.  ■