Since 1989, thousands of extrasolar planets orbiting other stars have been discovered. That’s just in the immediate vicinity of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. There are also thousands of possible planets that have not yet been officially confirmed.
We have certainly not seen any of these planets directly in great detail due to the vast distances involved in space, but that day may come. In the meantime one can hardly imagine a world that is much more beautiful than our earth. Second, in my opinion, is Saturn, which reached its closest approach to Earth earlier this year, just over 830 million miles away. Astronomers call this opposition. It takes a little over a year for this alignment to happen. Because in the year in which our earth orbits the sun, Saturn only moves about 1/29 of its orbit around the sun. It has a much larger and slower orbit. It will take another two weeks for the earth to come back between Saturn and the sun. Another great thing about viewing Saturn in opposition is that it is available all night, rising at sunset, and setting at sunrise like a full moon.
Although Saturn is about 11 million miles further away this week he’s available most of the night. It’s also slightly better placed in the early evening sky for serious observation. As a bonus, Jupiter is also near the sky this year, just below and to the left of Saturn. Just look for the two brightest « stars » you can see in the low southeastern sky. Jupiter is the brighter of the two and is also the closest approaching Earth in 2021.
This week in Starwatch, however, I want to focus on Saturn. Jupiter is cool, but Saturn is without a doubt my favorite planetary telescope destination! It’s been like that since I was a child. I will never forget seeing Saturn for the first time through a telescope at the Woodlake Nature Center in Richfield in 1969. Wenzel Franzich changed my life in a fabulous way that night when he saw Saturn through his telescopic sight! Even through a small telescope one can see the ring system of Saturn. That was a real thrill for me back then, and now I’m blessed to have much larger telescopes so Saturn is really over the top! I have even more fun showing Saturn to hundreds of people in my astronomy programs over the years, especially the kids. I never get tired of hearing reactions like “sweet”, “great”, “incredible”, “holy ____” and much more! If you’ve never seen Saturn through a telescope, now is the time.
If you can, stay there and stay awake as long as you can to see Saturn through a telescope because it is higher up in the sky. Whenever you observe a celestial object low in the sky, you need to see more of the earth’s fuzzy atmospheric envelope. That will definitely tarnish the picture, and you will likely be a little disappointed. You get a much better view of everything you observe higher up in the sky. So have a late night viewing party for Saturn, even around midnight. Saturn is worth sleeping in!
Like all planets in the outer solar system, Saturn is basically a ball of hydrogen and helium gas about 75,000 miles in diameter. Its trademark, however, is its incredible, intricate ring system, over 175,000 miles in diameter, more than half the distance between the earth and the moon. Amazingly, the ring system is only about 15 meters thick in places.
The rings consist of billions and billions of ice particles with some rock mixed into them. The size of the ice particles can range from crystals to the size of your house. Most likely, the ice is the powdered remains of one or two of Saturn’s icy moons, torn apart by the planet’s tremendous tidal forces. By the way, when you look at Saturn with the naked eye, most of the light you see is sunlight reflected from Saturn’s ring system.
In addition to Saturn’s rings, it is also possible to see some of Saturn’s moons with a small telescope . The moons resemble tiny stars that surround the planet. The brightest and largest is titanium, over 3,200 miles in diameter. This is bigger than the planet Mercury! Enceladus, one of Saturn’s much smaller moons, is a strong candidate for possible life below its surface. The Cassini spacecraft, during its thirteen-year orbit around Saturn, discovered water geysers that shot out of Enceladus before deliberately crashing into Saturn at the end of its highly successful mission.
If you’re looking at Saturn or any other planet with a telescope, it’s important to discipline yourself to take long, continuous views through your « telescopic sight ». Your eye has to adjust to the amount of light that falls into your rifle scope. You’ll also want to trap less turbulent air for a better view of Saturn. As with many things in life, perseverance will reward you.
Enjoy Saturn. It is the best! Related articles
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Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis / St. Paul. He is the author of Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations, published by Adventure Publications and available in bookstores and on adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected]
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