Jimmy Westlake: Look for spectacular Saturn | SteamboatToday.com

Jimmy Westlake: Look for spectacular Saturn

The planet Saturn passes closest to Earth this week, providing an excellent opportunity to see its spectacular rings through a small telescope. This image was taken through a 36-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas, but any small telescope should reveal the rings. Saturn's giant moon Titan is visible in this image at the far right.
Courtesy Photo

I was looking through some old photos of Halley’s Comet I took way back in the spring of 1986 and noticed the planet Saturn was near the constellation Scorpius, similar to this year. Then it hit me – Saturn’s year is 30 Earth years long, so the Ringed Planet has made one complete trip around the sun and is back where it was one Saturn year ago when Halley’s Comet was here.

You can spot Saturn yourself easily this spring because the dazzling planet Mars is glowing similar to a red neon sign close by. By 10 p.m. both Mars and Saturn will have cleared the mountains in the southeast, with brighter Mars leading the way. Saturn will be shining about one hand span behind Mars. Both planets will be visible all night as they move toward the west and set near dawn.

Saturn reaches opposition and is closest to Earth this year June 2. Saturn is the third bright outer planet to reach opposition in 2016. Jupiter was first, back March 8, and then Mars came to opposition May 22.

Every 378 days, Earth gains a lap on the sluggish planet Saturn and passes directly between Saturn and the sun, placing the two planets as close together as possible. When Saturn reaches opposition June 2, it will be 838 million miles from Earth.

This year, Saturn shines down on us from the unofficial 13th constellation of the zodiac, Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, not far from the Scorpion’s alpha star, Antares.

A telescope of any size aimed at Saturn will reveal its beautiful, icy rings. This year, Saturn has its rings tilted almost at a maximum toward Earth, and they are spectacular.

Made of myriad icy particles circling Saturn’s equator, the rings glint brightly in the sunshine. A medium-sized telescope might reveal the dark Cassini Gap in the middle of the rings. There is no bigger celestial “wow” moment than seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time.

Scan closely around the outside of Saturn’s rings through your telescope, and you might catch a glimpse of one or more of Saturn’s moons, especially the giant moon Titan. Titan will look similar to a tiny, orange star not far from the edge of Saturn’s rings.

Titan is the second-largest moon in our solar system, after Jupiter’s Ganymede, and both moons are larger than the planet Mercury. Titan is unique among the moons in our solar system, because it has a thick, cloudy atmosphere made mostly of diatomic nitrogen, similar to Earth’s.

At minus 290 degrees, the methane gas in Titan’s atmosphere liquefies and rains down onto the surface, carving out river valleys and collecting in enormous lakes. The largest lake of liquid methane on Titan’s surface is called the Kraken Sea. It is as large as our Lake Superior. The Kraken Sea contains more liquid hydrocarbons than all of the known oil and gas deposits on Earth combined.

Do you think that one day, humans might surf the waves of methane in the Kraken Sea?

On June 18, the nearly full Milk Moon will rise alongside Saturn. Watch during the next weeks and months as the planet Mars closes in on Saturn and passes only 4.5 degrees from Saturn on Aug. 23.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in Craig Daily Press. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.

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