Saturday is truly Saturn’s day this year. We mark the ringed planet’s opposition today, the time when it’s closest to Earth and brightest for 2014.
Opposition occurs when Earth passes between Saturn and the sun. When both planets lie on the same side of the sun, they’re almost 175 million miles closer than when they’re on opposite sides. That translates to a bigger, brighter Saturn. Because Saturn travels a little ways around its 29.5 year orbit every year, Earth requires about 13 days to catch up to it at each succeeding opposition. We’ll line up again next year on May 23.
The word opposition refers to Saturn being opposite the sun in the sky, rising when the sun sets and setting at sunrise. In a word, it’s visible all night long. Just about anytime you feel like pointing your telescope Saturn’s way, it awaits your gaze.
But before we talk telescope views, let’s take a minute to pinpoint the planet’s location in the evening sky. While it rises at sunset, it doesn’t clear the low trees until about an hour and a half later. Skywatchers at mid-northern latitudes will find it low in the southeastern sky around 10 o’clock well to the lower left of Mars, due south at that hour.
Tonight the gibbous moon won’t be far from Mars, making it exceptionally easy to find the Red Planet. Swing down to the lower lower left of Mars to spot Saturn. You shouldn’t have trouble spotting it – at magnitude +0.1 it’s nearly as bright as Vega and a pale yellow-white. The ring bearer’s out all spring and summer, so there will be many opportunities to see it.
The ring bearer calls the dim zodiac constellation Libra the Scales home in 2014. Because the moon’s waxing toward full, it’s tricky at the moment to see Libra’s dim stars. Wait till after May 16 for a better view. Maybe then you’ll notice the whimsical “Saturn Cross” like I’ve been seeing the past couple weeks.
The “Cross”, which just happens to be oriented north-south like the constellation Crux a.k.a. ‘Southern Cross’, is simply a different way to see Libra’s four most prominent stars. Saturn marks the center of the crossbeam.
If you’ve never seen the real Southern Cross, this might serve as a cheap, no-airplane-travel-required substitute. Mostly I bring it up as an easy way for you to add a new and rather faint constellation to your life list.
As Saturn travels around the sun in its 29.5 year orbit, we see one side of the rings for about 15 years, followed by an edgewise presentation. The rings – made of dirty water ice – are huge at some 155,000 miles wide (250,000 km), but they’re only about 30 feet thick and virtually disappear when seen edge-on.
That last happened in 2009. Since then they’re re-opened with the north face visible for some 15 years.
This year the ring plane’s tipped open 21-22 degrees, nearly the maximum of 27 degrees which occurs in 2017. A large tip exposes lots of ring ice particles to sunlight, boosting the planet’s brightness.
That’s all good news for both visual and telescopic observation. Even a 2.4-inch telescope will show the rings, with a larger instrument providing a brighter, larger picture and sharper resolution of the three brightest rings. I love the planet’s subtle colors through the eyepiece – the globe looks pale brown or butterscotch to my eye and the rings distinctly brighter and whiter.
Saturn’s the best. No other sight in the sky elicits the wonder and amazement of guests at the telescope. Look at the ringed planet every night you can, and the more friends and family your share it with, the better.