Over the past few weeks we’ve given readers eyeful upon eyeful of Saturn’s wonders via satellite photographs. This weekend is our chance to see it for ourselves, as the ringed gas giant is at its closest, and thus brightest, through the end of April and in May.
Moreover, Saturn is in what’s known as opposition. This means that the sun, Earth and Saturn are aligned, with Earth in the middle—putting Saturn opposite the sun, in other words, and tilted at just the right angle for us to ogle its breathtaking rings.
This is the closest Saturn has been to Earth in six years (putting it at about 746 million miles away, as opposed to one billion at its farthest), and a small telescope—even a cheapo department-store find, according to NASA—will net you your very own glimpse. If that is not available, the Slooh Space Camera is showing it online on Sunday night, according to Space.com. To find Saturn on your own, check out these tips from EarthSky.org.
Saturn’s rings were discovered via telescope in the 17th century, EarthSky.org tells us, and the tiny chunks of ice that comprise what turned out to be thousands of finely grained rings were discovered by spacecraft sent out to investigate in the 20th century. This sixth planet from the sun has a whopping 62 moons, only 53 of which are named, and only 13 larger than 30 miles in diameter, EarthSky.org says.
“Saturn is truly a wondrous world of rings and moons,” EarthSky.org says. “It’s everyone’s favorite thing to see through a small telescope, so if there’s a public astronomy night near you this month – go!”
Although Saturn is a magnificent sight, new wonders are constantly being revealed. The Cassini spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn for years gathering data recently found that the rings are “raining” charged particles of water down upon the golden planet, according to NASA.
"Saturn is widely regarded as the most beautiful planet in the known universe," said Bob Berman, a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Astronomy magazine, in a statement quoted by Space.com. "And this is the day that it is largest and hence potentially clearest not just for all of 2013, but for the past half dozen years, thanks to the greatly improved viewing tilt of its famous rings. The famous inky-black gap separating its broad white 'B' ring from its narrower 'A' ring, called the Cassini Division, should be striking."
Meanwhile, here is a video with more details on Saturn from NASA.