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Astronomy: Keeping an Eye on Saturn

Saturn from Iapetus
A unique view of Saturn as seen from its moon Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

For planetary observers, Saturn is the only player in the game this month. The other planets are close to the sun and heading into the morning sky. Fortunately, Saturn is an amazing planet for observing.

First find the planet Saturn using just your eyes – no optical equipment needed. The planet will be rising in the east after sunset this weekend, shining at magnitude 0.4 in the constellation Virgo. Be careful not to confuse the star Arcturus with Saturn. Saturn is the point of light a bit farther to the south. Arcturus is actually brighter than Saturn at magnitude 0.1. Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes, is a bit more orange in color than Saturn, which should look yellowish. Just below Saturn is the brightest star in Virgo: Spica. Spica is a bit dimmer than Saturn and different in color, shining a bright white, or possibly even a tinge bluish to discerning viewers.

Next, examine Saturn through a pair of binoculars. You need to hold the binoculars awfully steady to get a decent view. The higher-powered binoculars the better, but don’t expect too much, especially right now, when the rings are near their minimum. The best you can probably hope for is to detect an oval shape to Saturn where the ring makes the planet look less circular.

Telescopes can show much more detail on Saturn, with a wide range available depending on how powerful your telescope is. The first thing anyone notices when looking at Saturn through a telescope is the ring system, which is a stunning sight. Patience at the eyepiece can reward observers with moments of crystal clear seeing, allowing a sharper focus of the rings and possibly revealing shadows of the rings on the planet or of the planet on the rings. It can be hard to distinguish the rings from where they cross in front of the planet, so look for differences in coloration on the planet’s surface, which may be both from the rings and storms in the planet’s atmosphere. A telescope will also show the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, which is the only satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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