Saturn at opposition

May 4

Written by:
5/4/2014 10:25 AM  RssIcon

Saturn reaches opposition on May 10, 2014. The ringed planet is a favorite of amateur astronomers and casual stargazers everywhere! So where to find this planet, and what to look for through a small telescope? 

For the next few weeks Saturn is at its largest size from our perspective. Opposition means the planet is "opposite" Earth from a line from the Sun, through Earth, and on to Saturn. That places Earth at the closest point to the second-largest gas giant, though it is still about 900,000,000 miles away. But it can still be seen without the aid of binoculars or a telescope! Not the rings of course, but the bright spot that the planet does display shines at nearly 0 magnitude - that's brighter than all but a handful of stars. 

How to find Saturn May 2014

Look to the southwest about an hour or two after sunset - you can find the planet by following the line of the ecliptic. That's the line the Sun traces through the sky, but also the one the planets and Moon closely follow. This month, you can trace it from very bright Jupiter in the southwest, across the Regulus in Leo the Lion, over the reddish Mars and past bluish-white Spica to the cream-colored Saturn. If your southwestern horizon is blocked, no worries, try later in the evening. Although you won't be able to use Jupiter to trace the ecliptic then, following the Regulus-Mars-Spica line to the planet from the west to thesouth should be easy even past midnight.

What to see on Saturn

And as for Saturn? Check out the graphic above for the features you can try to spot. The A and B rings should be the most obvious to see first. The Cassini division takes a bit of time to spot, and some additional magnification. Try employing some tactics to see the planets better to enhance your odds of observing this gap in the rings. Most difficult of all is the Encke division; those with telescopes 8" or larger, and VERY steady skies may have a shot at it, but this feature is hard to spot. 

Start with at least 75x magnification on a telescope, and bump it up from there until the image is no longer clear, then back off to the last magnification. Planetary observing is often about patience... steady moments through the atmosphere - except on hazy, calm nights - often require waiting for the wonderful details to "pop through" to your eye. You'll know when it happens - the planet will settle down for a few moments, and suddenly more details will be visible. It will go back to being unsteady and blurry, so keep at it!

For even more information about this opposition of Saturn, check out the video below. 

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.