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Sculpting the orbital distributions

4 Mar 2019, 16:21 UTC
Sculpting the orbital distributions
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Saturn’s pole

Saturn’s polar axis is tilted relative to the plane in which Saturn orbits the Sun, and the plane of Saturn’s orbit is itself tilted with respect to the averaged orbital plane of the Solar System’s planets.

Pieces of popular scientific writing often start with an engaging “hook”, but the foregoing statement doesn’t do a particularly good job. Saturn and its rings do, however, do a good job of showing off their tilts — their obliquities, to use the vernacular. Saturn gradually shifts in appearance as the Sun’s illumination angle changes, and over time the creeping ring shadows even affect Saturn’s climate. Certainly, at the moment when the rings slice edge-on to the solar rays, the system presents a very different appearance than when the ring plane is inclined.

The geometry was first understood by Christiaan Huygens. By the mid-1600s, he had drawn a clear diagram showing how Saturn’s tilted pole points in a fixed direction as the planet traces its three-decade orbit.

The obliquities of Saturn and Neptune (26.7\(^{\circ}\) and 29.6\(^{\circ}\) respectively) seem odd. Uranus, tipped to its side and then some (97.9\(^{\circ}\)) is odder still. Naively, one might have expected a Solar System forming from a ...

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