See A Fine Conjunction Of Saturn And The Moon Tonight / Train Your Eyes On Titan

Saturn comes up with the waning moon tonight at the end of evening twilight around 11 o’clock. The two are in close conjunction only 1° apart just east of the Teapot. Stellarium

Gosh, the nights are pleasant. And they smell good, too. If you step out tonight around 11 o’clock and look low in the southeastern sky you’ll catch sight of the waning gibbous moon and what looks like a stellar companion located just 1° above it. That would be the planet Saturn. 10x binoculars will reveal that Saturn is oblong rather than round like Jupiter thanks to those famous rings. But you’ll need either a spotting scope or a small telescope magnifying at least 30-40x to clearly discern them.

This simulated view in a 6-inch telescope (north is up) shows Saturn and its brightest moons tonight. Titan and Rhea (RAY-uh) are easy to see, but the other three will take a bit more effort. Keep your eye on Titan — it’s bright and visible every night as it loops around the planet. It will be moving to the right (west) over the next week. Stellarium

Unlike Jupiter’s brightest moons, which are visible in binoculars, you’ll need that small scope to see Saturn’s. Typically, five are visible in a 6-inch reflector — Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys and Iapetus — but even a 2.4-inch (60mm) instrument will show Titan and Rhea. Titan is brightest at magnitude 9. It’s also Saturn’s largest moon at 3,200 miles (5,150 km) across, about half again as big as our own moon. Unlike the moon it has a substantial atmosphere, mostly nitrogen and methane gas. Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks the methane apart. The fragments combine with other chemicals to create a thick, orange haze of organic compounds that give the moon a distinctly orange hue.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan has a thick, smoggy atmosphere and is home to vast lakes of liquid methane, a few of which are visible show as darker blotches at upper left. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Earth and Saturn are currently 846 million miles (1.4 billion km) apart. Titan takes 16 days to circle once around the ringed planet, making it fun and easy to track a full orbit in just a couple of weeks. As you do, consider the amazing view of Saturn from the moon, where the planet spans more than 5° or 11.4 times the diameter of our full moon. No telescope needed to see the rings!

While Saturn is a giant planet 83 percent as large as Jupiter it’s also nearly twice as far away from Earth, so the planet alone looks smallish in a telescope. But thanks to the rings, which extend Saturn’s “girth” to at least 155,000 miles (250,000 km) we can see it see that it’s oval-shaped even in binoculars.

The waning moon shot with an older iPhone late last night through a telescope. Bob King
Left: Jupiter and its four brightest moons from late last night taken with a cell phone over the telescope’s eyepiece. Right: Saturn photographed with the same setup by Elias Bonaros of New York on June 15. Bob King

The air was calm last night, and the moon and Jupiter were very clear through the telescope, so I whipped out my iPhone and took a few photos. If you have a phone and telescope try holding the camera lens directly over the eyepiece. That’s what I did. With a little practice, it’s easy to line up the phone and get great photos of the brighter things in the sky. To ensure a sharp focus gently tap the image and then tap the shutter button. If you don’t have a telescope and would like browse around, check out Orion Telescopes or the scope selection at B&H Photo.

To use a mobile phone at the telescope carefully position your camera over the eyepiece (left), frame the moon or other bright object then tap the image to ensure focus and tap again to photograph. Bob King

Sorry, no Saturn photo from me (thanks, Elias) — it was still behind the trees. I’ll get it next time!

2 Responses

  1. kevan hubbard

    More gray clouds and rain for me in the wettest June on record in my part of the planet.the cloud cover is a bit like been on Venus minus the 450c heat and sulphuric acid rain!I did see the Sun a tiny bit through a gap today and the Moon a few nights back.just been looking at the picture of the German telescope that’s going to automatically scan the Moon for transient lunar phenomenon.looks like two cassigarian scopes joined up.its going to be in action near Seville, Spain but will send it’s data back to Bavaria, Germany.im guessing that the reason it’s in Spain is the amount of clear skies,apart from the north west of said county which is damp and wet a lot.

    1. astrobob

      Kevan,
      I think you’re right about the sunnier skies over Spain. Sorry to hear it’s been so rainy by you.

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