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The Magic of Saturn
The Magic of Saturn

Orion is proud to partner with BBC Sky at Night Magazine, the UK's biggest selling astronomy periodical, to bring you this article as part of an ongoing series to provide valuable content to our customers. Check back each month for exciting articles from renowned amateur astronomers, practical observing tutorials, and much more!

To many, the Ringed Planet is the first 'wow' object they glimpsed through a telescope. Paul Money explains how you can see it for the first time.

Magic of Saturn

Saturn by Mark Bell

If there is one planet in our Solar System that captures hearts, inspires minds and invokes joy when seen through a telescope it surely has to be the ringed wonder that is Saturn. Even through a modest instrument such as a 2.5-inch spotting scope it is possible to see that the planet is more than a roundish globe. No other planet comes close to capturing the wonder and imagination of young or old when they see Saturn through a telescope for the first time.

Reactions to the view can be interesting. While running a public astronomy event with Saturn as the 'star', a nine-year-old boy took one look through a 10-inch telescope and, for one cheeky moment, exclaimed it had to be a picture stuck to the end of the tube! A tap on the tube as he took another look put him right: the view shimmered and he stepped back amazed, exclaiming, "Wow it really does have rings!"

It is this joy of discovery when someone takes their first look at the beguiling planet which is so inspiring and moving. Saturn, along with the craters on the Moon, is consistently voted as the favourite things to see through a telescope on outreach evenings.

It is a common mistake to think that you need a large telescope with lots of sophisticated equipment to get the best view of Saturn. The truth is you don't: even a pair of 10x50 binoculars will show that the planet is slightly extended either side of the disc and reveal Saturn's largest moon, Titan, when it is not too close to the planet. Using a 5- to 8-inch reflector or 3- to 5-inch refractor will show more detail. A scope with a long focal ratio of around f/9 to f/12 helps too, as this will make the disc and rings appear larger in the eyepiece.

Stark and Golden
Through such instruments the planet can take on a golden hue, in stark contrast to the gleaming white rings, which are currently angled towards Earth. Within the rings you should look for the Cassini Division, the black gap that separates the outer A ring from the brighter B ring. You might even see the inner C ring at times, if the air currents in our atmosphere are steady to provide good seeing. These certainly aren't the only rings Saturn possesses, but they are the easiest to pick out.

The planet itself may also show a dusky northern belt and a polar haze. Through a telescope you'll also be able to bag a few more of Saturn's moons, most likely Rhea, Tethys, Dione and Iapetus. Larger telescopes reveal more subtle detail on the planet, finer detail in the rings and three more moons: Mimas, Enceladus and Hyperion.

If you are showing the view to youngsters, make sure they can reach the eyepiece; perhaps keep a stool or sturdy chair handy for them. Not everyone finds it easy to keep one eye closed as they look through the eyepiece either, so an eye patch can be a useful aid. Some children (and even adults) can struggle looking through an eyepiece. If that's the case, try getting them to look through an empty toilet roll tube; it's surprising how effective this can be in getting them ready for the view through a telescope.

With Saturn best placed during the summer months, now is the time to plan a barbecue, get your friends and neighbors round, let the kids stay up a little later than usual and take a look at the second largest planet in our Solar System. With the added bonus of the spectacular ring system, it is sure to impress.

Getting the Best View — How to Make the Most of Observing the Ringed Planet
A good clear southern horizon is a must for spotting Saturn. Use binoculars first to home in on the planet, then a modest telescope such as a 5-inch reflector or a 3-inch refractor to gain a closer look. When using a telescope, make sure everyone can reach the eyepiece. With reflectors in particular, you can usually rotate the tube to bring the eyepiece to a better position, or have a stool or chair handy. Don't use too high a magnification: it's better to ensure the view remains sharp, even if that means keeping the magnification lower than you'd like.

Top 10 Saturn Facts
As well as being a beauty, the ringed wonder is also a fascinating world.

  1. Saturn has 62 confirmed moons.
  2. The planet is tilted on its axis by 26.7 and therefore has seasons. Each lasts just over seven years because Saturn takes 29.45 years to orbit the Sun.
  3. Saturn is a gas giant planet; it is mainly made up of hydrogen and helium. It's thought that a rocky core exists at its centre.
  4. On average, Saturn is 9.5 times farther from the Sun than Earth is.
  5. Each day on Saturn is only 10.55 hours long. This means that there are 24,470 Saturnian days in one Saturnian year — that's a lot of sunrises and sunsets!
  6. Saturn is slightly flattened: its equatorial diameter is 120,536km while its polar diameter is 108,728km. You could fit 9.5 Earths across its disc.
  7. The ring system out to the A ring is 273,550km wide, but only 1km thick.
  8. Saturn is a windy planet, with gusts measured by Voyager at 1,800km/h.
  9. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, has a nitrogen atmosphere and liquid lakes of methane on its surface.
  10. Roughly every 30 years, a great white storm appears in Saturn's northern hemisphere.

About the Writer
Paul Money is the BBC Sky at Night magazine reviews editor and an expert on running astronomy outreach events.

Copyright Immediate Media. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical without permission from the publisher.

Date Taken: 07/20/2016
Author: Paul Money, BBC Sky at Night magazine
Category: Astronomy

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