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Saturn: Lord of the Rings

Skywatch

By Dennis Mammana- It is often said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so if I were to ask which is the most beautiful of all the planets, I would expect a variety of answers.

Some might say it’s the delicate white crescent of Venus; others would prefer the undulating cloud bands and dancing moons of Jupiter. Still, others may choose the ominously red planet Mars. One can certainly make a case for each, as well as for our own blue and white Earth.

But if you’re like most stargazers, you’d probably answer: “the ringed planet Saturn.” And with that, I must agree. So, for all you Saturn lovers out there, this month is for you!
Saturn reaches its opposition point in early June (officially on June 9), when it appears in our sky opposite the sun, rising in the southeast at sunset and glistening all night.

You should have little trouble spotting this distant world since it’s one of the brightest objects in that part of the sky, along with the reddish star Antares and Jupiter (which easily outshines all). And making it even easier to find, on the night of June 15, it lies just to the northeast of the nearly full moon.
Not only does Saturn’s opposition mean that it lies opposite the sun in our sky, but it also means it’s closest to the Earth. This week, Saturn approaches to only 839.4 million miles and produces a marvelous view through a small telescope.

If you’ve never viewed this planet for yourself, you have no idea what you’re missing. Everyone’s first glimpse through a telescope elicits a gasp of wonder, as the remarkably three-dimensional ringed world appears suspended against the darkness of space.

Even a small instrument with 30 times magnification power or so will show its rings; of course, a larger telescope with a higher magnification will show not only the rings but also a break within them known as the Cassini Division. In addition, Saturn’s largest and brightest moon, Titan, often appears with even the smallest of instruments.

Making the sight even more meaningful is an appreciation of what we’re actually seeing. Saturn is a world made almost entirely of gasses, with a diameter about 9.5 times greater than the Earth’s. Its rings, if brought here, would fill much of the space between our planet and the moon.

Though the rings appear solid to the eye, we know today that they are composed of billions of individual ice chunks — some as tiny as dust grains, some as massive as mountains — all whirling about the planet at tens of thousands of miles per hour.

Saturn will remain in our evening sky throughout the summer, but during the next month or so, expect it to offer a truly spectacular sight through a small telescope. If you don’t have a telescope of your own, call your local planetarium or amateur astronomy club to see when their next public “star party” will be so you don’t miss this remarkable sight.

One glimpse at this stunning ringed world and I’m sure you’ll agree: Saturn is indeed the most beautiful planet of our solar system!

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.

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