Saturn is very distinctive and gorgeous to look at. It has a telltale yellow and tan color and is relatively uniform in its surface appearance, especially compared to its neighbors. Many people know Saturn as one of our solar system’s so-called gas giants but what is the planet actually made of?
Saturn is a planet primarily made up of two gases, hydrogen, and helium. These two elements make up 99.5% of Saturn’s composition. The vast majority of Saturn’s mass comes from hydrogen which makes up a whopping 96% of its composition. That makes Saturn the most hydrogen dense planet in the entire solar system, and it is not close.
According to NASA’s raw data, this is what Saturn’s composition by volume looks like:
Hydrogen – 96.3%
Helium – 3.25%
Methane – 0.45%
Ammonia – 0.0125%
Hydrogen isotopes – 0.0117%
The rest of Saturn’s elemental profile includes methane, ammonia, ethane, and other hydrogen derivatives and byproducts. The core of Saturn is speculated to have some dense metals such as iron and nickel as well as some rocky elements as well but that has not been officially confirmed.
How did Saturn form?
Saturn likely formed at the very beginning of our solar system. Saturn is made up of the same materials that make up our sun: hydrogen and helium. After the sun began to form in the center of our solar system, massive clouds of remnant gas were left orbiting around the new star. As the sun grew in size and gravitational pull, it began to pull the leftover gasses around it in orbit.
Approximately four billion years ago, these massive clouds of dust and gas began to orbit the sun. Over time, they would have coalesced into gaseous spheres of their own. This process took place all over the farthest reaches of our solar system with different clouds forming into different balls of gas and dust. That is what gave us our four gas giant.
Saturn settled into place as the sixth planet from our sun and was formed out of primarily a cloud of hydrogen. As it formed up into its own distinct planetary body it captured other materials in its own gravitational field which would later become the many moons and rings which orbit the planet today.
Can you stand on Saturn?
No. Saturn has no solid ground as we know it. There is nothing for you to stand on, nowhere for a spacecraft to land, and no uniform surface beneath the clouds. Saturn is simply made up of different forms of hydrogen and helium.
The visible parts of Saturn are made up of gaseous hydrogen and helium but as you continue to go deeper into the planet, the elements undergo a change due to pressure and temperature increases. The farther you descend into the gassy outer layers of Saturn, the higher the pressure becomes.
The same physical principles apply to Saturn as they do on Earth. For example, if you continue to descend deeper into the oceans here on our planet you would face increasing pressure. The same thing happens on Saturn.
Once the pressure gets high enough, the hydrogen and helium gas will be compressed into a liquid. That means once you got down past the clouds, instead of finding land, you would find a dense layer of liquid hydrogen. Nothing manmade could survive such pressures and conditions so that is where your potential journey would likely end.
If you managed to continue going through the liquid hydrogen and helium you might reach a rocky core, but there still would be nothing to stand on. The cores of all of the planets are speculated to be similar in their compositions: dense rotating layers of heated pressurized metals.
No matter how hard you looked, you would find nothing even remotely resembling any sort of solid surface that you could walk or stand on anywhere on Saturn.
I love looking at Saturn through my telescope and the main reason I research the planet. Planetary Telescopes are excellent and allow us to discover many objects in our night sky.
Don’t forget Saturn has rings and we covered what they are made from in our What are Saturn’s rings made out of blog post.