Arguably the most majestic planet in the solar system, Saturn is about to appear its biggest and brightest in our evening skies for the entire year. What’s more, its iconic rings will be striking a dramatic pose that we won’t see again for more than a decade.
On the night of June 14 in the Western Hemisphere and June 15 in the east, the ringed planet will reach what’s known as opposition, when it lies opposite to the sun in our sky. During this time, Saturn will stay visible all night, rising in the east at sunset and setting in the west at dawn. The planet will also be at its closest to Earth for the year, at about 840 million miles away.
For sky-watchers, this means Saturn will be shining at its brightest and will appear its largest in backyard telescopes. It will remain well placed for viewing through June and into July.
Hunting down Saturn is easy even with the naked eye: It looks like a striking golden-yellow star within the faint constellation Ophiuchus, which rises in the eastern horizon as night falls. However, a backyard telescope with high magnification will offer the best views of the gas giant planet and its stunning ring system, which currently appears tilted 26.5 degrees toward Earth.
This is as steeply tilted as the rings can get for observers on Earth, and it’s a sight that occurs only once every 15 years.
Less than a mile thick, the seemingly solid rings are actually made of countless chunks of orbiting ice that range in size from boulders to sand grains. In the early 1980s, the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 flew close by Saturn and revealed that its broad rings are divided into thousands of “ringlets” that resemble the concentric grooves in a vinyl record.
Later, the Cassini mission in orbit around Saturn showed that the rings are kept in shape by tiny shepherd moons that corral the icy particles via gravity.
Right now, the very visible tilt of the rings toward our planet affords exquisite views of the Cassini Division, a dark and distinctive gap that separates the system’s two brightest rings. (See how a mystery blob messed up Saturn’s rings.)
In addition to admiring the rings, sky-watchers with backyard telescopes four inches or more should be able to spot the largest of Saturn’s 62 known moons, Titan and Enceladus, which will appear as tiny dot-like objects on either side of the giant planet.
Bigger than the planet Mercury, Titan is perhaps the most intriguing Saturnian satellite. Shrouded in thick orange smog, the icy orb has lakes and seas filled with liquid hydrocarbons that may harbor the basic ingredients needed for life. Enceladus is also a favored target for astrobiologists, as that geyser-capped moon is thought to contain an ocean under its icy shell that may be capable of supporting life.
After opposition, Saturn will appear in the low southern sky late in the evening for sky-watchers across most of North America and Europe. The best viewing times will be between local midnight and 2 a.m., when the planet will appear at its highest and most visible in the sky.
As a bonus, look out for other stellar superstars that will join Saturn in the coming weeks. For instance, the ringed world will be shining above Antares, the most brilliant star nestled within the neighboring constellation Scorpius. This distinctly orange star is an impressive 600 light-years from Earth but will only be a bit dimmer than Saturn.
And to the far right of Saturn, viewers can find the blue star Spica and the bright creamy-colored planet Jupiter in the neighboring constellation Virgo. The largest planet in the solar system made its closest encounter with Earth for the year in April and so is still putting on a good show. In the coming weeks, it will become part of a dramatic, easily visible lineup with Saturn, Antares, and Spica.
So on the next clear night, look toward the southern sky for the best views of the true lord of the rings and its stunning cosmic companions.
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