Saturn was known to the ancients only as a point of light. The planet started to give up its secrets when Galileo Galilei turned his new invention, the telescope, toward it in 1610. In 1655 Christiaan Huygens described the rings correctly and found Titan, the planet’s largest moon.
As the resolving power of telescopes improved, patient astronomers gleaned more information about the moons and rings of this remarkable planet. By 1878, astronomers were attempting to imagine what kind of creatures might inhabit the planet. Our artist’s conception from 1915, Saturn as seen from its moon Titan, is surely a classic work of imagination.
From 1979 to 1981 the Space Age gave us a closeup view of Saturn and its moons when unmanned spacecraft Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flew close to the planet. Those feats of engineering technology were surpassed by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft: the orbiter launched in 1997 is still sending amazing images back to Earth in 2015; the lander touched down on the surface of Titan in 2005 and sent us images for about 90 minutes.
It is as tempting to say that the laws of physics and biology will prevent us from sending astronauts to Saturn or Titan. It seems more likely our descendants will find a way for our discoveries to keep pace with our imagination, as it has in the past, as you can see from this brief slideshow of images of Saturn and its moons.
>> Click here to view a slideshow of Saturn's history
You can travel through the history of space exploration in the full Archive of Scientific American from 1845 at www.ScientificAmerican.com/magazine/sa