Primetime Views of Saturn And an Upcoming Planetary Family Portrait

While skywatchers may not get the same clear view of Saturn like this Hubble image, small telescopes can easily reveal its majestic rings. Credit: NASA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)


Saturn and Earth will pose for a snapshot next month for a NASA orbiter while the gas giant puts its best face forward this week and next for evening skywatchers . Armchair astronomers can also catch this celestial lord of the rings through a special high definition, live SLOOH web broadcast June 18 from Prescott Observatory in Arizona, starting at 11:45 pm EDT / 8:45 pm PDT. (Here is a list of cities with local broadcast times)

The planet is now dominating the high southeastern night sky in the Northern Hemisphere (northeastern sky in the Southern Hemisphere). It’s easily visible in the constellation Virgo—you don’t need any optical aids.

This gas giant shines so brightly in the sky because of its massive size—nine times larger than Earth—and its highly reflective cloud-tops. To the naked eye, this sixth planet from the sun shines with the creamy yellow color of its gaseous atmosphere. (Related: “NASA Probe Spies Giant Hurricane on Saturn.”)

Hands down, Saturn is considered the most beautiful sight in the sky. I can guarantee you that it is an unforgettable moment when you see its majestic rings for the first time, and no picture can do it justice.

But if you want to see the rings, then you need a small telescope. It doesn’t have to be a fancy instrument—anything bigger than a pair of binoculars should give you a glimpse.

Those rings are made of billions of chunks of ice and rock—they range from house-size down to a particle of dust. The rings are about 155,343 miles (250,000 kilometers) wide, making the planet and its rings capable of fitting snugly between the Earth and the moon. (Related: “Saturn’s Rings Hit by Meteor Shower.”)

Look carefully through a small telescope and you may even notice a tiny dot near the planet. That is Titan, Saturn’s largest and brightest moon. (Related: “Saturn Moon Has Tropical “Great Salt Lake,” Methane Marshes.”)

But even if you gaze at this amazing planet with nothing more than just your eyes, it’s still an amazing sight. Just think that Saturn lies more than 800 million miles (1.3 billion kilometers) away from Earth, so far away that it takes light from this planet 1 hour and 13 minutes to reach your eye!

Heads up! Get your celestial portrait from a billion miles away!

NASA’s Cassini mission will be taking a family portrait of sorts on July 19, when it will look back at Saturn as it eclipses the sun and takes the gas giant’s picture—a one-pixel sized Earth and moon will be visible off to Saturn’s side. A mosaic image will be stitched together and should look something like the computer simulation below.

The graphics shown here illustrate the position of our planet relative to Saturn, and the portion of Earth that will be illuminated at the time its pictures are captured by Cassini on June 19th. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The graphics shown here illustrate the position of our planet relative to Saturn, and the portion of Earth that will be illuminated at the time its picture is captured by Cassini on July 19. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The images will be snapped over a four hour period and the images with Earth will be taken exactly between 2:27 p.m. and 2:42 p.m. PDT. During this time, North America and part of the Atlantic ocean will be in sunlight. For the first time Earthlings will know in advance that their picture is being taken from nearly a billion miles away.  So don’t forget to go outside, look up, and smile!

Check out what other celestial events are happening this week.


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Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share 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.