Look Up Tonight! You Can Spot Saturn's Rings With a Telescope


The NASA spacecraft Cassini swung high above Saturn in October 2013 to capture this unusual view of the planet and its main rings. Composed of 36 images in three color filters, the photo depicts the gas giant in natural color, as human eyes would see it. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

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.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives." —Carl Sagan. Also, Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

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.

Itself a giant moon—at 3200 miles wide, it's larger than Mercury—Titan appears before the giant Saturn, which was undergoing seasonal changes in this 2012 natural color mosaic image taken by Cassini's wide-angle camera. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

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.

This enhanced-color view of Saturn was taken in October 2012 when Cassini was in Saturn's shadow and the Sun was behind the planet, backlighting it and its rings. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute