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