Saturn: Lord of the Rings

By Dennis Mammana

June 8, 2017 4 min read

Week of June 11-17, 2017

If I were to ask which you think is our solar system's most beautiful planet, how would you respond?

Some would answer that the Red Planet, Mars, or the glistening planet Venus beat all others. Some might argue that Earth is the most beautiful of all. Now, it's true that these all are legitimate contenders, but if you've ever peered through a telescope at the ringed planet Saturn, you will almost choose this celestial marvel.

Saturn reaches its opposition point this year on June 15, when it appears in our sky opposite the sun, rising in the southeast at sunset and glistening all night long.

Right now, you can find Saturn appearing as a bright star just east of the summertime constellation Scorpius and just north of the teapot of Sagittarius. You should have little trouble finding it, since it's the brightest object in the southeastern sky after dark.

Saturn's opposition means that it lies opposite the sun in our sky and that it's closest to Earth. This week, Saturn approaches to be only about 840 million miles away, producing a marvelous view through a small telescope.

If you've never gazed at this planet, you have no idea what you're missing. Everyone's first view elicits a gasp of wonder, as the remarkably three-dimensional ringed world appears suspended against the blackness of space.

Even a small instrument with 30 times magnification or so will show its rings; however, a larger telescope with a higher magnification on a night with steady air will show the rings and the separations between them known as the Cassini Divisions. Sometimes you'll even spot some of the planet's pastel cloud bands. In addition, Saturn's largest and brightest moon, Titan, appears with even the smallest of instruments, as do several smaller moons.

Making the sight even more breathtaking is an appreciation of what we're actually seeing. Saturn is a world made almost entirely of gasses, with a diameter about 9.5 times greater than the Earth's.

If brought to Earth, its rings would fill much of the space between our planet and the moon. Though they appear solid to the eye, this is far from reality; the rings are composed of billions of individual ice chunks — ranging in size from dust grains to boulders to mountains — revolving about Saturn at tens of thousands of miles per hour. And within these rings are billions of moons!

Just because the opposition occurs officially this week doesn't mean that this is the only time Saturn will shine at its best. It will remain in our evening sky throughout the summer months, but only during the next month or so can we expect a truly spectacular sight with 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 you won't miss this remarkable appearance of Saturn.

One glimpse at this stunning ringed world and it'll be difficult for you not to believe that it is, without question, lord of the rings!

 View Saturn, lord of the rings, after dark this week.
View Saturn, lord of the rings, after dark this week.

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