Saturn visible tonight, complete with rings

Alert reader P. has called my attention to a post on Sky and Telescope about tonight’s (and tomorrow’s) appearance of Saturn in the southern sky. If you don’t have a telescope, you can watch it online (check the box below for the website and the times). I’ll be watching, as I’ve never seen Saturn live.

Saturn takes over from Jupiter as the starring planet of the evening sky this spring, and right now it’s closer, bigger, and brighter than at any time for the rest of the year. The ringed planet comes to opposition on the night of April 27-28, and for the next few weeks it remains essentially the same apparent size: 19″ across at the equator and 42″ across from ring-tip to ring-tip (about a Jupiter-width).

Special Event: Watch Saturn live from your computer by joining“Around the Ringed Planet,” an online observing event sponsored by Astronomers Without Borders. Hosted by Gianluca Masi of Bellatrix Observatory in Italy, the webcast begins at 22:00 Universal Time (6:00 p.m. EDT) on April 27th.

Saturn shines fairly high in the southeast by early evening, below Arcturus and Spica. If you still haven’t looked at Saturn in a telescope since last year, the change will be dramatic. The rings now present themselves very invitingly, tilted a wide 18° or 19° from our line of sight, the widest they’ve appeared since 2006. They will continue to open (with minor seasonal fluctuations) until reaching a maximum of 27° in 2017.

The smallest astronomical telescope should reveal the rings easily and, with a little more effort, the dark Cassini Division between the A and B rings. The dusky C ring is more of a challenge to spot where it appears against the dark-sky background, but its dark shading is easier to see where it crosses Saturn’s bright face just inside the B ring.

Saturn's main telescopic features are labeled on this fine photograph taken by Robert English on February 7, 2012, with a 20-inch Newtonian reflector. At the time the rings were tilted 15°. Robert English

Saturn’s main telescopic features are labeled on this fine photograph taken by Robert English on February 7, 2012, with a 20-inch Newtonian reflector. At the time the rings were tilted 15°. Photograph by Robert English

18 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Seeing Saturn for the first time in a telescope is awesome. It was the first thing I saw when I bought my telescope 16 years ago!

  2. Christian
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I almost forgot about this event.

    BTW, if anyone needs a sky chart, there’s a good one at heavens-above.com. You can enter the coordinates of your location on the website (or alternatively pick them from a map).

  3. Florian
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to mention that things planetary like this change quite slowly over time. So if you miss Saturn tonight, or tomorrow, the view will be similar for the next month or so.

    -Florian

  4. Michael McCants
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Saturn’s at opposition! This event happens only once every year! Tonight it’s only 820 million miles away! And since we are on Daylight Savings Time, the best time to see it will be 1 AM! (Your time may vary due to your longitude east or west of your standard meridian.)
    On the other hand, if you wait until June 21 or so, Saturn will be an astounding 856 million miles away! That’s 4% farther away! It will be 4% smaller! But it will be higher in the sky at 11 PM instead of 1 AM.

  5. Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I’ll be watching, as I’ve never seen Saturn live.

    Just to be clear, you have seen Saturn live, a great many times, through your whole life — whether you realized it or not. Saturn is one of the brightest objects in the sky, and much brighter (even at its dimmest) than familiar beacons such as the North Star. And pick a random date and time, and there’s about a 50% chance that Saturn will be above the horizon at that moment, so you’ve definitely seen Saturn. (There’s also a 50% chance the Sun is above the horizon at that time, too….)

    Not having seen Saturn live through a telescope, of course, is another thing entirely — and an experience you won’t want to miss, even if there’s no lack of opportunities to do so.

    But you don’t need fancy expensive equipment (or streaming Internet video) to get a good telescopic view of Saturn, and you don’t need to be in any exotic location, either. If you can look up and see any stars at all — and that means basically anywhere with the lights off and no buildings, trees, or clouds to obscure the view — then all you need is a $50 Galileoscope, a high-quality modern replica of Galileo’s own telescope. Not just high quality — optically, it far surpasses anything Galileo could have dreamed of.

    Now, to be fair and in the interests of full disclosure, Saturn is going to be pretty small in the Galileoscope. But you will be able to clearly see the rings, something that Galileo himself never did quite manage.

    I was able to find an YouTube video of Saturn imaged with the Galileoscope; this is pretty representative of the kind of detail you’d see, except that the image will be a lot smaller and therefore a lot sharper — and a lot brighter, too. And, of course, the rings are almost edge-on in the video, whereas, as Sky and Telescope notes, we’re now viewing them at an angle so you can actually see them as rings.

    Oh — and the easiest way to find Saturn? It’s at opposition right now, which means that it’s opposite the Sun — or, more descriptively, the Earth in its orbit has caught up with Saturn in its orbit and we’re in the process of passing it on the inside.

    That means that Saturn rises when the Sun sets, at the opposite point on the horizon. At midnight, it’s where the Sun was at noon. And it sets when the Sun rises. Just imagine where the Sun is beneath your feet, and look in the exact opposite direction. The brightest thing you see there is Saturn. (Its position changes throughout the year, of course, but slowly, almost as slowly as the stars themselves.)

    Cheers,

    b&

    P.S. You’ll want a tripod to hold the Galileoscope for you, but the cheapest one you can find at the nearest big-box department store will do just fine, as will any old tripod you have gathering dust in the attic. The Galileoscope weighs almost nothing, and the kind of observation you’ll be doing doesn’t demand anything special in terms of stability. b&

    • darrelle
      Posted April 27, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      The Galileoscope also comes with another eye piece with a more modern set of lenses that allows significantly better viewing than the eye piece modeled after Galileo’s iconic instrument.

    • Posted April 27, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Thank you thank you thank you for the video! It’s the best thing I’ve seen all day (because it’s not night yet!).

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, this video is great. With binoculars, I saw what I think was Saturn last night. I couldn’t see it an hour after sunset but later, high up in the southeastern sky, as bright as anything. Tonight, no joy; all rained out!

  6. Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I remember seeing Saturn for the first time, and lucky through a large telescope. Two dimensional pictures don’t really prepare you for it as it simply doesn’t look real. A bit like someone is playing a joke on you and hanging a Saturn model in front of the telescope. Weather permitting (and that is a big if in Vancouver), I’ll get my telescope out and show my kids.

  7. Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on suzzeq's Blog.

  8. darrelle
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I usually try and set a scope up on a weekend night for something like this so the neighbors can all get a look. Thanks for the heads up. Don’t know how I missed this, but this one snuck up on me.

    It is hard to beat Saturn and Jupiter, but Mars can also be fantastic when it is in a favorable position. With a modest scope you can clearly see the polar caps and interesting patterns of shading that make you realize how easy it was for Lowell and others to suppose Mars was a living world.

  9. Marcoli
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    People should also go online to look for any local Astronomy clubs. They are likely holding a ‘Star Party’ for tonight where people bring their telescopes, and share them, hang out and talk. There is one near me, and I am crashing it.

  10. Posted April 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Cancelled. Rain. Could not the pope have done something about that.

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted April 27, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Still bloody raining! Typical, you just can’t trust an imaginary friend to get anything right. :-(

  11. Nick
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Bummer! I went out and found an alarm clock
    for my PC and set it up just so I wouldn’t miss this. I suppose it is my fault that it is cloudy and raining in Italy.

    Fortunately we have an active astronomy club in this high desert area so I reckon if I could find a live telescope I could stand in line to view through.

  12. Marcoli
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Well, I just got back from my first star party. Beautiful clear skies over Michigan (rare), and fine views of Saturn through a 10″ reflector. So… Nyah, nyah, nyah.

  13. Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Here are two (of many) public outreach Saturn experiences, that demonstrate how religion affects curiosity. Both left me feeling sad. Both involved people who were adults in their 50s, and of known religious affinity. The first was at an outreach event in Texas about 1979, the second in Norway around 2003.
    1) After looking through a telescope, probably for the first time, a person angrily accuses me of fraud, and claims that the image of Saturn in my telescope was fake, “a color slide or something”. I was a “typical example of a scientist trying to fool people”. Tragically, this person was a teacher at a local elementary school.
    2) I explained to the person viewing Saturn what she was seeing. She didn’t express any surprise or awe typical of first time viewers. After a minute of viewing, she says “We can’t really know all that stuff [size, distance, composition, temperature, etc]. It’s all just guessing. I don’t believe those things.” She was a Sunday school teacher.

  14. Frederic Abel
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on My Astronomy Blog.


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