Welcome to the first of a weekly column dedicated to that most ancient form of astronomy: stargazing! Veteran sky-watcher and science writer Andrew Fazekas will be giving us the skinny on what’s hot in the night sky, including when, where, and how to see some amazing cosmic sights from the comfort of your backyard.
This week, as we look forward to the first day of spring on March 20, Andrew brings us a preview of this season’s coolest “trend.”
by Andrew Fazekas
Saturn will take center stage in the cool spring nights, offering a real treat for sky-watchers worldwide. While most of our neighboring worlds that are visible to the naked eye are huddled low in the western twilight sky—near the glare of the setting sun—the ringed giant presents itself as a cosmic showpiece, dominating the sky all night long.
The most distant planet known since ancient Roman and Greek times, Saturn looks to the naked eye like a bright, golden-yellow star rising low in the eastern sky in the early evenings of March and April. Even night owls will get their fill, as the gas giant actually glides through the high southern sky [or the northern sky, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere] through the overnight hours and sets at local dawn in the west.
—Image courtesy Starry Night Software
The brightest views will be centered around April 3, when Saturn reaches what’s called opposition. That’s when Saturn and Earth make their closest approach together for 2011, and the ringed wonder rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise.
The brilliant views are also thanks in large measure to the highly reflective Saturnian cloud tops and the positioning of its majestic rings, powerful sunlight reflectors that are currently tilted in Earth’s direction. The last couple of years have seen Saturn approach and pass equinox (picture), when the rings appeared nearly edge-on from our line of sight—an event that occurs every 15 years. During this time Saturn appeared almost ringless in small telescopes, a cool sight for veteran sky-watchers, but pretty disappointing if you are a first-time viewer of this solar system superstar.
But this year the rings are back! And they are on full display, making Saturn really look like its classical portrait in textbooks and astronomy magazines.
Saturn and a scattering of moons, as seen by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
—Image courtesy NASA
Through binoculars it may simply appear that there is something weird about Saturn’s shape. To appreciate the full beauty of the rings, you need the magnifying power of a small telescope. Nothing fancy … a scope with about 2- to 4-inch primary optics and with at least 20x to 40x magnification power should give you that “wow” moment with Saturn. Moderate-size instruments (4 to 8 inches) working at about 100x magnification will begin to resolve finer details, such as the cloud bands on the planet’s surface and even major gaps or divisions in the ring system.
Amazingly, Saturn’s brightest satellite and largest moon in the solar system, Titan, can be glimpsed through the smallest of backyard telescopes and followed night to night as it travels in its 16 day orbit around Saturn. You can find an online widget for calculating the predicted positions of Titan and Saturn’s other moons on Sky and Telescope’s website.
—Image courtesy Starry Night Software
Whether you’re a veteran or beginner stargazer, this season’s encounter with Saturn promises exceptional views not to be missed. What better reason to brave the crisp spring nights than to enjoy the breath-taking beauty of the real lord of the rings?
Bonus Sky Show: On March 8 sky-watchers in parts of North America and Europe have a chance to say their goodbyes to the space shuttle Discovery before she returns to Earth from her final voyage on Wednesday.
Watch the International Space Station with the space shuttle trailing behind it, both visible to the naked eye as bright star-like objects gliding across the overhead skies.
To find out if the ISS and shuttle are making flybys in your neck of the woods, visit Spaceweather.com’s Simple Satellite Tracker.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to shares his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.