Starting this month and heading into the summer, Jupiter and Saturn begin to rise earlier in the evening in the southern and southeastern skies. These gas giants grab the lion’s share of the headlines of our solar system and for good reason. Look beneath the large print and one finds stories of wonder and awe.
Years ago, I participated in a star party with other members of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. An elderly woman stepped up to my telescope and gazed at the rings of Saturn. She said that she’d never seen them before except in photographs.
She let out a gasp and then backed a few feet away and told me that she’d like to bring her husband over so that he could also see this sight. She explained that he was waiting for her in their car because walking had become difficult for him. But, she added, this would be worth the effort. A few minutes later she returned, her husband holding onto her for support. He approached the telescope and gingerly leaned forward and peered through the eyepiece. And then, in one of those moments imprinted forever into my memory, he said, “Oh my god.”
Saturn is like the Grand Canyon – there is just no way to ever get your fill of it. On a dark night and when the planet and its rings are at the optimal angle to pull in all of Saturn’s majesty, seeing it is as much an emotional experience as it is a feast for the eyes. It would be the subject of my mother-in-law’s question whenever she saw me hauling my telescope into the backyard: “Is Saturn visible tonight?” I don’t remember how many times
she looked at it, but I recall what she would always seem to say afterwards. “It’s really incredible, isn’t it?”
From my point of view, it’s perfect. A whopping 62 moons are in orbit around it. The largest of these moons, Titan, is larger than the planet Mercury. One day on Saturn lasts only about ten hours, the fast spin causing the planet to flatten at its poles. It takes Saturn nearly 30 Earth years to revolve around the sun. While the rings do not move, the countless number of ice and rock particles that comprise the rings are moving at great speeds around the planet. There is a lifetime of study to be had with just one of these facts.
And, we have been studying it. The first of three fly-by missions to look at Saturn up close began in the 1970s. A fourth mission, Cassini-Huygens, started in 1997 and ended just a few years ago. The Huygens part of the probe successfully landed on Titan in early Cassini’s final act in 2017 was to enter Saturn’s atmosphere. Data from that event is still being analyzed. An incredible array of photographs from the mission can be found online.
Saturn will be closest to the Earth on July 9 – roughly 750,000,000 miles away. The moon that night will be at the first quarter phase, rising early in the afternoon and setting just after midnight. So, the later in the evening the better for finding and observing Saturn in the south/southeastern sky.
It has a yellowish color and will not be far from the constellation Sagittarius. The ancients saw Sagittarius as an archer. I see it as clear as day as a teapot. Saturn will be near the handle of the teapot. Binoculars will not reveal the rings, but will give you a wide view
of the area and enable you to more easily place it with the naked eye.
One last thought: in last month’s PRT, Robert Gay wrote about the negative aspects of light pollution and the myriad benefits of reducing it. For thousands of years Saturn has stood
out among the points of light in the sky. In 1659 the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens determined that what were originally thought to be moons on either side of Saturn was
actually a ring system. So, I’ll add to the reasons dark skies are so important. For 360 years we’ve been able to marvel at Saturn and its rings, and we’ve been able to exclaim “Oh my
god” upon seeing this wonder. Dark skies give us that ability. Dark skies allow us to cry out in amazement. That, alone, is worth every effort to work toward making Patagonia a dark-sky community.
Editor’s note: Harold Meckler shares his love for the night sky in this column. He is the author of “Monsoon,” a novel about imagination, awe and self-discovery.