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.
But two disparate ingredients are required for the Saturn stew to be perfect.
Saturn’s Rings at Maximum
First there are the fabled rings, dazzling assemblies of millions of chunks of ordinary water ice, each ranging in size from baseballs to bungalow cottages.
Saturn’s spectacular ring system has seven rings and several gaps and divisions between them. All combined, the rings are only a few football fields in thickness but stretch for over 100,000 miles—analogous to a sheet of paper the size of a city block. They’re so thin that they vanish from sight when seen edgewise. But now the tilt is near its maximum so that the rings look comic-book amazing. It’s all spectacularly obvious through even modest backyard telescopes, using any eyepiece that delivers at least 30 power.
Shinier than the planet itself, the rings nearly triple Saturn’s overall brilliance when they present a wide-open face toward Earth and Sun as they’re doing now. 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, then 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.
Credit: Rings at maximum. Cassini/NASA.
Saturn’s Position in the Sky
Ingredient Two is Saturn’s 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 view Saturn in the sky, simply look low in the south any time after nightfall. 10 or 11 PM is close to perfect. It’s the only bright star in that region. Don’t mistake it for much more brilliant Jupiter to its right.
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.
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.