Saturn at its best

(NASA)

In our culture of publicity and hard-sell, it’s tempting to exaggerate. Even with celestial events, the media often cry wolf. But one planet never disappoints. Through any telescope with more than 30x, Saturn elicits gasps. Over the years, I’ve found that most visitors to our observatory either say, “Oh my God!” or “That’s not real!” when their pupils meet the eyepiece.

Oddly, photos of the ringed world fail to pack the same visceral punch. You have to see it for yourself.

This is the time. Last Sunday, Saturn came nearest to us for 2013, and it will remain close, big and bright through all of May. More importantly, those fabled rings, which have been oriented edgewise or nearly so for the past six years, are now tilted 18 degrees from sideways, revealing exquisite detail. The thinner, darker outer band – the unimaginatively named “A ring” – is clearly separated from the broader, whiter B ring by an ink-black space. This is the famous Cassini Division, a gap that shows up wonderfully with only 100x on nights when the stars are steady and not twinkling.

Those rings are fashioned of countless chunks of ordinary water ice, typically the size of beachballs. The rings span 100,000 miles, but are only about 35 feet thick: so thin, they’re analogous to a sheet of paper the size of a city block. That’s why they can seem to vanish entirely when seen edgewise.

Twice as reflective as the ball of Saturn, the rings double Saturn’s brightness when they present their maximum face toward Earth and Sun, which they will do three years from now. That hemisphere being tilted our way since 2009 – and continuing for 15 years – is the north face, the one whose pole is surrounded by a bizarre hexagon 60 miles high, which could enclose five Planet Earths.

Say you’re sold and want to find Saturn for yourself. If it were one of the sky’s most dazzling stars, the way Venus or Jupiter always are, this would be a piece of cake. But it’s easy anyway.

Look high overhead around 9 or 9:30 p.m. and you’ll see the Big Dipper. This is when its seven stars are highest in the sky, nearly straight up. Let its curvy handle “arc” downward to brilliant orange Arcturus in the east. Continue downward along that arc and you’ll see two lowish bright stars – the only bright stars down there in the southeast. The one on the right is blue and higher up; this is the famous Spica, Virgo’s alpha star. The one on the left is slightly brighter and a bit lower. This is Saturn. Easy.

You might also notice that Saturn twinkles less than Spica. No problem finding it. And no rush, because the planet will stay great for weeks and weeks.

Now you have to get those friends who have a telescope to point it at that spot. You won’t be sorry.

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