Week of May 4-10, 2014
It is said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so if I were to ask which is the most beautiful of all the planets, I would expect a variety of answers.
Is it the delicate white crescent of Venus? The undulating cloud bands and dancing moons of Jupiter? The ominously red planet Mars? One can easily make a case for each of these, as well as for our own blue and white Earth.
But if you're like most stargazers, you'd probably answer: "the ringed planet Saturn." And with that, I must agree. So for all you Saturn lovers out there, this month's for you!
Saturn reaches its opposition point this week (officially on May 10) when it appears in our sky opposite the sun, rising in the southeast at sunset and glistening all night.
You should have little trouble spotting Saturn since it's one of the brightest objects in the eastern sky not long after dark. First, find the bright yellowish star Arcturus by following the Big Dipper's handle downward toward the horizon. To the lower right of Arcturus lie two other bright "stars." The upper and brightest in the area is Mars; the lower one — almost as bright as Arcturus — is Saturn.
Not only does Saturn's opposition mean that it lies opposite the sun in our sky, it also means it's closest to the Earth. This week Saturn approaches to nearly 827 million miles, and produces a marvelous view through a small telescope.
If you've never viewed this planet for yourself, you have no idea what you're missing. Everyone's first glimpse through a telescope elicits a gasp of wonder, as the remarkably three-dimensional ringed world appears suspended against the blackness of space.
Even a small instrument with a magnifying power of only 30x or so will show its rings; of course, a larger telescope with a higher magnification will show not only the rings, but also the separations between them known as the Cassini Division. In addition, Saturn's largest and brightest moon, Titan, appears with even the smallest of instruments.
Making the sight even more meaningful is an appreciation of what we're really seeing. Saturn is a world made almost entirely of gasses, with a diameter about 9.5 times greater than the Earth's. Its rings, if brought here, would fill much of the space between our planet and the moon.
Though they appear solid to the eye, we know today that the rings are composed of billions of individual ice chunks — some as tiny as dust grains, some as massive as mountains — and all whirling about the planet at tens of thousands of miles per hour.
Saturn will remain in our evening sky throughout the summer, but during the next month or so expect it to offer a truly spectacular sight through a small telescope. If you don't have a telescope of your own, call your local planetarium or amateur astronomy club to see when their next public "star party" will be so as to not miss this remarkable sight.
One glimpse at this stunning ringed world and you'll most likely agree: Saturn is indeed the most beautiful planet of our solar system!
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.