You can use the Big Dipper to guide you to Regulus and from there to Saturn. This map shows the sky as you look east around 10 p.m. in late January. If you go out later, Saturn will be even higher and easier to see. Created with Stellarium.
Saturn watchers can rejoice this January. The planet is now one of the actors on the evening sky’s stage. Since losing Jupiter and Mercury earlier this month, we’ve had only Venus to light the way. No complaints about Venus, but the outer planets like Saturn, Mars and Jupiter have more to offer the telescopic observer like rings, moons, polar caps and changing weather.
While walking the icy roads the other night, I noticed that Saturn clears the trees in my neighborhood around 10 o’clock. It occupies a vacant area of sky below the outline of Leo the Lion. To find it, start with the Bowl of the Big Dipper in the northeast. Reach your arm out to the sky and make a ball with your fist. Regulus (REG-you-less), Leo’s brightest star, is three fists to the right and below the Bowl. If you like, you can linger a while here, using Regulus to find the famous "Backwards Question Mark" asterism that forms the Lion’s Head. Saturn is two fists below Regulus and a tad brighter. See that triangle of stars above the planet? That’s Leo’s tail. The brighter star at the far end of the triangle is Denebola (Den-EB-oh-la), which means "tail of the lion" in Arabic.
The last time Saturn’s rings were edge-on from our perspective on Earth was in 1996. These photos, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, show them barely visible (top), and slightly tilted.The dots are moons of the planet. Titan is the biggest in the top image. Although the rings are extemely wide — 185,000 miles across — they’re less than a half-mile thick. Credit: HST/NASA
In an earlier blog, I talked about Saturn’s rings. Their inclination or tip is very shallow this year. Presently, the planet looks like a butterscotch-colored orb with a toothpick stuck through it. The rings will open up just a little in the coming months before we see them completely edge-on later this summer. I shouldn’t say "see", because when we view the rings exactly along the edge, they’re so thin, they disappear in all but the very largest telescopes. Small telescope users will notice that Saturn is closely accompanied by what appears to be a moderately bright star. This is its largest moon Titan, which circles the planet every 16 days.
The full beauty of the rings is revealed in this stunning image taken by the Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around the planet. Credit: Cassini/NASA
Like two planets on a teeter-totter, as Venus goes down, Saturn comes up. Tonight Saturn rises at 8:50 p.m. while Venus sets at 9:13. Together the two light the way through the length of these bitter cold nights.