Saturn: Lord of the Rings

By Dennis Mammana

May 19, 2016 4 min read

Week of May 22-28, 2016

It is often 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.

Some might say it's the delicate white crescent of Venus; others would prefer the undulating cloud bands and dancing moons of Jupiter. Still, others may choose the ominously red planet Mars. One can certainly make a case for each, including 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. For all you Saturn lovers out there, this month's for you!

Saturn reaches its opposition point in early June (officially June 3). It will appear in our sky opposite the sun, rising in the southeast at sunset and then glistening all night.

You should have little trouble spotting this distant world since it's one of the brightest objects in that part of the sky, along with the reddish star Antares and the planet Mars (which easily outshines all). Saturn will be even easier to find on the night of May 22, when it will lie just to the west of the nearly full moon.

Not only does Saturn's opposition mean that it lies opposite the sun in our sky; it also means it is closest to the Earth. This week, Saturn approaches to be just 838 million miles away. It is a marvelous view that can be seen 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 of Saturn 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 just 30x or so will show its rings. Of course, a larger telescope with a higher magnification will show the rings and a break within them, known as the Cassini Division. In addition, Saturn's largest and brightest moon, Titan, often appears with even the smallest of instruments.

The sight is even more meaningful if we know and appreciate what we're actually seeing. Saturn is a world made almost entirely of gasses, and its diameter is about 9 1/2 times greater than the Earth's. Its rings, if brought here, would fill much of the space between our planet and the moon.

Though the rings appear solid to the eye, we know today that they are composed of billions of individual ice chunks — some as tiny as dust grains, some as massive as mountains — that whirl 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 to be seen 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 the next public star party will be, so you don't miss this remarkable sight.

One glimpse at this stunning ringed world and I'm sure you'll agree: Saturn is indeed the most beautiful planet of our solar system!

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