Look Up Tonight! You Can Spot Saturn's Rings With a Telescope
On June 3 at 3:00 a.m. EDT, Saturn will be in opposition, which means from the perspective of Earth it will be directly opposite the Sun, and thus in total sunlight. It will be as big and bright as it's going to get in our night sky this year.
If that's not cool enough for you, consider that this is a really good year for viewing Saturn, as its rings will appear just about as wide as is possible when seen from our pale blue dot. In short, if you (or a friend) have a good telescope and know how to use it, the mysteries of the cosmos—the sort usually seen only in science fiction or in textbooks—will be visible in your backyard, and as real and true as the Moon or Sun. If "See the rings of Saturn" isn't on your bucket list, here's your chance to add it and cross it off on the same day.
Is there any known planet that better represents the wonders of the universe than Saturn? Its rings are like sharpened blades of celestial wonder. A scant three planets from Earth, it is perhaps the first hint for a space-faring human race that we live in an infinite universe of boundless beauty, where things are wildly different and yet somehow the same.
It's been an astonishingly good decade for Saturn science. The Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn and its system of moons for more than 11 years now, returning libraries of data that will take years to sort through and analyze. Scientists have learned much about Saturn's rings; NASA has since called them "a laboratory for how planets form." Saturn's storms and hurricanes have been studied closely, and scientists have sent Cassini through the plumes of Enceladus, where it collected samples of an alien ocean. In 2005, the European Space Agency landed the Huygens probe on Titan, the enigmatic moon of Saturn. It was the first time scientists have ever managed to land a probe on the moon of an outer planet, and the images returned provide a rare view of an alien horizon. Plans are even underway to send a submarine there to cruise Titan's methane seas.
To find Saturn, look to the east at sunset and enjoy the show as it reaches its highest point around midnight local time. It shouldn't be too hard to spot and will more or less shine as bright as the brightest stars in the sky. (Unlike the stars, however, Saturn will not seem to "blink" or shimmer.) Coordinates beneficial for telescope viewing can be found here. For best viewing, avoid areas with light pollution, which is the sullying of the evening sky with poorly directed or needlessly employed artificial lighting. Your local astronomy club might have special viewings planned for the local community. To find a club in your area, check out the databases at Go Astronomy and Sky & Telescope.