There is nothing more amazing for amateur astronomers than being able to view celestial objects in almost live conditions. However, nothing comes close to the sight of Saturn and its majestic rings.
Being able to view the ringed planet with most of its features through a telescope is a truly awe-striking experience that can transmute any ordinary stargazer to an avid amateur astronomer.
In this post, I will be telling you how best to see Saturn with a telescope. I will take you through how easily to locate it in the night sky and give you tips on how to have the best view of the Ringed Planet.
Stick with me through the end to learn these and more stuff about this beautiful planet.
Saturn: The Ringed Planet
Saturn is a massive gas-filled planet placed 6th from the Sun in our Solar System. It is the second-largest planet after Jupiter, with an equatorial diameter of 120, 536 kilometers. Its polar diameter is 108, 728 kilometers. Saturn is 17 times bigger than our planet Earth with the latter having a diameter of 6, 378 kilometers.
The mass of the Ringed Planet is about 95 times that of Earth, but it has a density of 0.69g/cm3. With water having a density of 1g/cm3, it means that this giant planet would float were there to be a body of water massive enough to hold it.
The planet’s atmosphere is made up of most hydrogen and helium gases and it has no solid surface. Its most interesting feature – the rings – are comprised of icy particles and rocky interstellar dust and debris. The rings are 7 in total and they are separated by multiple gaps.
Saturn has more than 80 moons, but only 53 of them have so far been named, with the largest one called Titan. Astronomers think that most of Saturn’s moons have conditions that may support life, and Titan is known to have a substantial atmosphere.
While Saturn is more than 1.433 billion kilometers away from the Sun, its massive size allows us to see it from Earth with the naked eye. Its size also makes it reflect more light from the Sun, making it one of the brightest objects in the sky, hence easily visible from Earth.
How to Find Saturn in the Sky
Saturn, along with Venus and Jupiter are among the brightest planets in our Solar System. This means you can easily see Saturn with your naked eye from Earth if you know where to look.
However, I must mention that Earth’s atmospheric conditions keep changing throughout the year. Also, the position of the planet in the sky keeps changing over time, so the Ringed Planet is not going to be easily visible all the time.
Your location matters when it comes to finding Saturn in the sky.
However, the planet will be visible for the most part of 2023. From March onwards, the Ringed Planet should be seen in the east. It appears as a yellowish spot and is close to Jupiter, which is brighter due to its bigger size.
But of course, this is not the best way to find Saturn, especially if you just started stargazing. There are easier ways to do that.
One of the best ways to find Saturn in the night sky is by using constellations. Opposition just happened on 27th August.
This means that Saturn is now directly opposite the Sun in the constellation Aquarius. The planet and all its rings are now at their brightest, making it easier for you to spot the planet from Earth with a telescope.
The planet is expected to remain in the constellation Aquarius for the rest of the year 2023. It is going to be easily visible from September to December.
The next best way to find Saturn in the night sky is by using various astronomy software, mobile applications, and websites that tell you where the planet is positioned at any given time. One of the best free versions of such software is Stellarium, and a good-quality paid version is Sky Safari 6. This software will give you detailed information on where to look for Saturn.
The applications and software use your location and give you the exact point in the sky where you will easily find the planet. With these tools in hand, it is time for you to find and view the Ringed Planet.
How to See Saturn without a Telescope
Say you do not have a telescope yet, but you still want to see Saturn. While you are not going to see the spectacular features, you will at least know you are looking at Saturn.
As I have mentioned above, Saturn is among the brightest objects in the sky. So it is easily visible to the naked eye from Earth.
Use the information you get from the astronomy software or applications explained above to locate the planet. Most applications will give you a detailed plan of the night sky, including the altitude of the planet you are looking for.
For instance, say your astronomy software tells you Saturn is at 41.5 degrees above the east horizon. The horizon itself will be at 0 degrees, and the zenith, which is directly overhead, is at 90 degrees.
This means that the mid-way between the horizon and the zenith is 45 degrees. You can, therefore, roughly locate Saturn using this information.
Since you are viewing with the naked eye, the planet will appear as a star but if you look closely, it is going to be one the two brightest “stars.” The brightest one is Jupiter. It appears as a yellowish or pale-yellowish spot.
You can also use a pair of binoculars. Any pair with 7X to 20X magnification will confirm you have the planet in view. It will appear as a distinct solid disc.
How to See Saturn with a Telescope
In my experience viewing and tracking Saturn, I know it tolerates high magnification pretty well, but it is always to start with lower magnification. Going in hard with bigger magnification will most certainly produce blurry images.
Now, I am assuming the night sky is clear, and you have your equipment ready. The first thing you want to do is set up your telescope at a good vantage point. Set up your finderscope perfectly.
At this point, you should already know where exactly to point your telescope by using the information gathered from the previous two sections – you already know where exactly the planet is in the night sky.
All you need to do is centre the bright “star” in the finder-scope. Look through the eyepiece to confirm you are looking at Saturn. Unlike the stars nearby, which appear as small pinpricks of light, the planet will have a solid, distinct shape.
With a telescope with 20X to 30X magnification, you will see Saturn as a flattened disc. You will probably see the disc as having protrusions that look like ears.
There will be one on either side. Those are Saturn’s rings. With a telescope with 50X to 100X magnification, you will begin to see the separation of the rings more clearly.
With more magnification, you will begin to see some cloud bands on the planet.
The larger telescope you use, the better images of Saturn you are going to see. For instance, a 12-inch Dobsonian telescope will give you details on Saturn’s surface, including the incredible black Cassini Division found between the rings A and B.
What to Target when Seeing Saturn with a Telescope
You don’t want to just have a general look at the Ringed Planet because there are various features you should target to take your viewing experience a notch higher. There are three major targets I am going to discuss here: the rings, Titan (the planet’s largest moon), and Saturn’s surface features.
Even with a small telescope, you can easily see Saturn’s rings. When I first started tracking Saturn, I could see the rings with a 50-mm pair of binoculars.
However, if you want to get the best view of the rings, you need a larger telescope. As I noted earlier, with a 12-inch telescope, you can easily see the different colorations of the rings as well as the Cassini Division.
You also want to target Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. With a diameter of over 5,000 kilometers, Titan is bigger than Mercury, Pluto, and Earth’s moon. Being large as it is, we can easily see it from Earth using a telescope because it is fairly bright.
Saturn has multiple surface bands, and it experiences storms regularly. You cannot, however, see these features with a smaller telescope. You need a bigger, more powerful telescope to clearly see these surface features.
You also need to be very skillful in viewing as well as perfect seeing conditions to see any of these features. You may also want to buy a high-quality telescope filter to stand a chance here.
How to See Saturn with a Telescope: Key Factors to Consider
From the foregoing, it is not hard to locate and view Saturn with a telescope. However, there are a few factors you need to consider to give yourself the best possible chance of having the planet in your view. I put together 4 of these factors to help you get prepared for your Saturn viewing session:
- Light Pollution
Light pollution is a critical factor when it comes to stargazing. Light from streetlights and other forms of light pollution cause unwanted glow in the Earth’s atmosphere. This can distract the viewing experience as the glow reduces the contrast between Saturn and the dark background of the sky.
I must, however, mention that since Saturn is bright, you may stand a chance to still get it in sight, but it is always better to choose viewing spots in areas with less pollution.
- Air Turbulence
Air turbulence is mostly caused by heat that stirs the air in the atmosphere, distorting the images you get. For instance, you do not want to set your vantage point on a concrete surface. The surface absorbs a lot of heat during the day and gives it off to the atmosphere as the day gets cooler in the evening. The heat will stir the air and distort your view.
You also want to avoid setting up your equipment on the roof of your house, as there will be heat coming off the roof or the chimney.
- Seeing Conditions
The state of the atmosphere during a viewing session is what stargazers refer to as ‘seeing’ conditions. The gases that make up the atmosphere are always moving and swirling around, and they can affect the images you get. Also, air turbulence, as discussed above, will affect your seeing conditions.
You need to consider all these before you start your session. Luckily, there are many online resources and communities you can use to determine when the conditions are right for a viewing session.
- Temperature and Dark Adaptation
You may not notice it, but the equipment you use for celestial viewing is significantly affected by outside temperature. For instance, telescopes have several glass and metal parts contract or expand depending on temperature and this may affect the quality of images you get.
For this reason, you should avoid setting your telescope and immediately start viewing. Give your equipment about 30 minutes so that all the parts can adjust to the outside temperature.
You also need to give your eyes time to adjust to light differences. You cannot get out of your well-lit house and go straight to your telescope’s eyepiece. You need to give yourself about 20 minutes outside so your eyes can adapt to the darkness.
It is easy to view the second-largest planet in our Solar System – Saturn. Its rings will give you among the most spectacular views you will ever see in the sky.
As it is a huge and bright planet, you can see it even with a small telescope in your backyard. Use this guide and tips to give yourself the best possible Saturn viewing experience and enjoy yourself while at it.