In this age of hype, Saturn remains one of the true show-stoppers. But, as with Earthly affairs, timing is everything. Right now, Saturn shines at its brightest this year, making it the ideal to time to view our beautiful neighbor. It’s really easy to find. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The Lord of the Rings overwhelms neophyte telescope owners and seasoned observers alike. Saturn may be our solar system’s most beautiful planet; it’s the jewel of our solar system. Through any telescope with more than 30x, Saturn elicits gasps. And yet photos of the ringed world do not do it justice. To get the full impact, you have to see it for yourself.
This is the time to do it. Saturn comes nearest to us for the entire year, and it will remain close, big, and bright all this summer and fall. But two disparate ingredients are required for the Saturn stew to be perfect.
Saturn’s Brilliant Rings
First, there are the fabled rings: dazzling assemblies of millions of chunks of ordinary water ice, each typically the size of a beach ball. The rings span 100,000 miles across, but are only about 35 feet thick. That’s so thin, it’s analogous to a sheet of paper the size of a city block. That’s why they can vanish entirely when seen edgewise, like they will in March of 2025.
Shinier than the planet itself, the rings nearly triple Saturn’s overall brilliance when they present a wide-open face toward Earth and Sun. Encircling Saturn’s tilted equator, the rings open up twice during the planet’s 30 year orbit. Back in the 1980s, we saw the rings’ north face, and since 1995, we’d been viewing the south. Now, since 2009 and continuing until 2024, it’s the north face again. This is the side encircling Saturn’s north pole, which itself is surrounded by an enormous bizarre hexagon that nobody can satisfactorily explain.
Those rings, which have been oriented with an ideal slant for the past six years, are now starting to tilt a bit closer to edgewise, giving them an intriguing comic-book appearance. Any backyard telescope will show detail—the easiest and most dramatic of which is the inky black gap that separates the narrower darker outer ring from the broad white inner one.
This empty channel is called the Cassini division, named after Giovanni Cassini, who discovered it in 1675 when he used an ordinary refracting telescope whose 2 ½ inch-wide main lens is a near-perfect match for the commonest inexpensive instrument used by backyard sky-explorers today. In fact, the false color-fringing of those 17th century lenses means that today’s instruments are far superior. So if Giovanni could see that ebony gap, so can you.
Saturn’s always been weird. Its great distance from the Sun gives it the slowest motion of any of the bright planets, and the ancients thought its lengthy 29 ½ year orbit meant it was lethargic, and created the word “saturnine” to describe someone gloomy and morose. Telescopes first pointing its way in 1609 barely helped clarify the nature of that giant icy sphere.
Even when Galileo used his best home-made telescope with its 30x magnification, he did not perceive it as a ball surrounded by unattached rings, a spectacle that actually appears nowhere on Earth on either the microscopic nor the macro level. Instead, he saw the bright protrusions on each side of Saturn as the handles of a teacup, and sketched them that way. Unsurprisingly, a giant floating teacup did not add much clarification to our planetary studies, especially a porcelain item weighing 90 times more than Earth.
Credit: Rings at maximum. Cassini/NASA.
Where and When to See Saturn
The other factor that affects our view of Saturn is its position in the sky. As it plods along the zodiac, the gas giant spends most of a gloomy decade buried in low-down southerly constellations where thick horizon air often blurs its features through telescopes. That’s where it is now, finishing up its lowest-down position this year, in Sagittarius.
To find Saturn for yourself on the next clear night, start the water boiling for some tea, and while waiting, venture out anytime after 10 PM. Look low in the southeast. You’ll see a very bright star down low, the most brilliant in the whole sky. This is Jupiter. Directly to its right is the only other bright star in this region, and this is Saturn. Saturn’s only 1/7th as bright as Jupiter, so know your target is a bright but not brilliant “star.”
To the naked eye, Saturn will look starlike. Look closely and you may observe its distinct golden color, which will be further enhanced with a set of binoculars. You will need a telescope to see Saturn’s rings. If you don’t have a telescope, just contact your local astronomy club! Astronomers will be excited to show you the night sky wonders.
I’ve watched thousands get their first Saturnian gaze over the past half century. “Oh my God!” and “That’s not real!” are somehow the reliable repetitious chants that you’ll always hear when someone first sees the planet and its brilliant rings. But now, and throughout the summer, why not check all this out for yourself?
Observers needn’t rush out. The sluggish world gains and loses its glory in slow-motion. The current optimal observing season will last for the next 2 to 3 months. Plenty of time to dust off that old telescope.