Look Up Tonight! Saturn Is Big and Bright, With Rings Tilted Our Way
Look up tonight, June 14, and overnight into the early morning hours of June 15, and you’ll be able to see Saturn looming luminously in the evening sky. Bring a telescope and you might even be able to see its rings.
Tonight, Saturn is “at opposition”—that is, as close to the Earth as it's going to get this year, and therefore big and bright. It's because our orbits: We are presently in alignment with the Sun, and between it and Saturn, so from our perspective, the disc of Saturn is in full illumination. Think of it as a “full Saturn,” with the same general idea at work as when we have a full Moon.
So what are you waiting for? You’re not going to live forever. Grab a telescope and a blanket and get to the countryside. The Roman god of agriculture and wealth awaits!
HOW DO I SEE IT?
When you look at Mars through a telescope, you’re looking for the ice caps. When you look at Jupiter, you’re looking for its moons and gorgeous stripes. When you look at our Moon, you want to see the craters, ridges, and mountains along the terminator (the line dividing light and dark during the moon’s phases). Saturn, of course, is all about the rings.
Here is the good news: Any telescope of reasonable power should be able to see Saturn’s rings. (That $30 novelty telescope you bought your kid for Christmas that’s collecting dust in a closet? If it has 25x magnification—and it probably does—and if the sky is clear and light pollution low and you know what you’re doing, you can use that.)
Here’s the bad news: Saturn is smaller than Jupiter and a lot farther away from the Earth. Right now, even as it nears opposition, it's nine astronomical units away. (An astronomical unit is the distance between the Sun and the Earth.) This means you should prepare yourself for something less spectacular than Cassini-generated images. It’s going to be small. It’s going to be fuzzy. But it will be recognizable as Saturn, and it's a good year to try to spot its rings.
A good view of the rings is not always a guarantee. Some years, the rings are edge-on when seen through a telescope, making them appear more as a single flat line bisecting the planet than as actual rings circling an alien world. (Without enough magnification, the rings might seem to vanish entirely.) Other years, the rings are “open,” Saturn’s pole tilting our way, and you get that wonderful Glamour Shots pose, the rings 45-degrees forward and giving the camera all it’s got. This is because of the planet's orbit and tilts.
Why is it so important for you to get out there and check out Saturn tonight? Because 2017 is a “wide open” year. You’re going to see it all, and with enough telescope, you’ll even be able to make out the gap between the rings and the planet. Saturn will first creep over the southeastern horizon just after 9:30 p.m. EDT on June 14, and will reach its highest point in the sky around 1:30 a.m. This is the best time for viewing: a high, bright Saturn, due south and with rings aplenty. If you’re setting an alarm, give yourself a lot of time to set up and for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The usual conditions apply: You need a clear sky and no light pollution.
If the weather is bad tonight or you have unbreakable plans, take heart: Saturn will look virtually identical tomorrow night—so much so that beginning at 8 pm EDT on June 15, Slooh is hosting a livestream of the planet featuring views from telescopes and live commentary by astronomers.
SOON THE ONLY WAY TO SEE IT
After September 15, the only way anyone will be able to see Saturn’s rings is to use a telescope, whether of the backyard or the Hubble variety. That’s because NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which first arrived in the Saturnian system on July 1, 2004, will finally arrive at the end of its mission on that day. Cassini’s grand finale will see the spacecraft plunge into the mysterious atmosphere of the gas giant, where it will disintegrate, though not before returning data revealing the nature of the planet’s magnetosphere and surface winds, and providing some idea of composition of its core.
Cassini is at present still orbiting Saturn, though you will not be able to see the spacecraft with your telescope tonight, even if you do have access to Hubble.