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  • Writer's pictureLuke

Saturn's Return!

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Saturn will be at 'opposition' (closest it'll be to earth) on Aug 14th 2022 (I wouldn't stress the exact date so much as we'll have good late night views of Saturn from now to late August then good early night views of Saturn for a few months after August). Saturn is currently appearing in the southeast sky around 10p and only will be coming up earlier and earlier in the evening.

Saturn is a true treat in binoculars or a telescope. When you first see it you might see an oval resembling a batman symbol, or a dot with a line through it but once you focus your eyes on it you should see Saturn's rings resolve. Saturn never fails to get an “oh wow!” from anyone looking at it up close, the large planet suspended perfectly in the rings is a magical sight to observe with your own eyes.

Saturn, like the Earth, has solstices and equinoxes. Saturn takes 30 years to go around the Sun meaning 30 Earth years = 1 Saturn year. We see Saturn's solstices by seeing the rings tip towards us and appear to open up and we see Saturn's equinoxes by observing the rings edge on, where it’s difficult to notice the rings at all. Saturn is currently more in equinox, meaning the rings will be opening up more and more each year until 2028 when they start to close up again

When Galileo first saw Saturn's rings he of course didn’t know what he was looking at, some of his first sketches depict it with two moons (he had already discovered the moons of Jupiter making this a reasonable guess). After he caught his first glimpse he got clouded out and wasn’t able to see Saturn again, then once the clouds left Saturn was no longer in the sky (Saturn was too close to the Sun to be observed). Galileo knew about the movements of the planets by now so he waited till he could see it again and when he did the rings were no longer visible (Saturn had gone into equinox as they are now where the rings were edge on) this lead Galileo to think he had hallucinated when he first saw the rings as moons. Saturn’s Greek god name is Κρόνος, Krónos who was a Titan that ate his children. Galileo knew this story so when he saw the “moons” next to Saturn disappear he thought just like in the myth Kronos had eaten his children. He checked back over the next few years to see them open up again; he never truly realized what they really were, later calling them "arms".

After taking in the rings of Saturn if you look around just next to Saturn somewhere you should see the moon Titan (yes this is where Thanos is from). Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system (after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede) and slightly larger than even the planet Mercury. Titan is really exciting for planetary researchers as it is rich in geological processes that are alien to anything seen on Earth yet somewhat familiar. Much like Earth Titan has clouds in its atmosphere and lakes on its surface however Titan’s lakes and clouds are not made of water but made of methane. It is thought that methane on titan acts much like water acts on Earth. Because Titan is so far from the sun it is much colder but these cooler temperatures make it possible to have methane as a solid, liquid, and gas. When heated methane lakes evaporate into clouds that when cooled then rain and/or snow methane back down to the surface. Here on Earth we’re so close to the sun it’s so hot that methane is only found as a gas.

If you want an up close view of Saturn and more please join us on one of our astronomy programs.

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