Last week’s total solar eclipse was a sight to behold, but if there’s one celestial view that can challenge totality, it’s Saturn’s delicate rings — and July is the best time to see them. You're going to need a telescope, but not a particularly large one. Here's how to take a look.
How to see Saturn’s rings
Any 4-inch backyard telescope should have enough power and magnification to give you a decent view of Saturn’s incredible rings. Don’t expect a close-up, but there’s little in the night sky to rival your first view of Saturn’s rings. If you’ve not got access to a telescope, consider a trip to a public observatory sometime this summer, where astronomers will definitely put you eyes on Saturn every night. In Los Angeles, try the Griffith Observatory, which is holding a public star party on July 13, until 9:45 p.m., while in New York City you can take a trip to The High Line on any Tuesday between April and October to peer through the telescopes of the friendly Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Forget about light pollution, which has no effect whatsoever on planet-hunting.
What are Saturn’s rings made of?
The reason to look at Saturn isn’t for its surface features, but for its beautiful and mysterious rings. Tiny particles of rock, water and ice, its rings are thought to be the remnants of moons. In The Sky reports that the rings are this year angled to show Saturn’s northern hemisphere, as easy to see as they ever are.
Is it possible to see any of Saturn’s moons?
Yes. From the 62 known moons of Saturn, only the giant moon Titan can be seen through a 4-inch telescope. It’s the biggest and, arguably, the best since it’s the only moon we know about that has liquid on its surface. Not liquid water, but liquid methane and ethane. In fact, there are methane lakes, and even crater lakes, which could theoretically support a kind of life we know nothing about. There are plans from NASA to send a lander called Dragonfly, to arrive in 2034, that will be able to buzz around Titan’s surface, drone-style.
When is Saturn next at opposition?
Saturn will again reach opposition — when Earth is precisely between a planet and the sun — on July 20, 2020, but the real highlight will be on Dec. 21, 2020, the date of the winter solstice, when a so-called “Great Conjunction” sees Saturn and Jupiter appear very, very close together just after sunset.
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