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Published: Sunday, April 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Saturn's cool to observe even with small scopes

When I put on star parties, I love when folks get a look through my arsenal of supersized telescopes. I line the 'scopes up on the moon, the Orion Nebula, the Perseus Double Cluster, the great Hercules Globular Cluster, Jupiter and other luminaries.
But the best reaction is when the telescopes are focused on Saturn. The great thing about Saturn is that you really don't need all that big of a telescope to enjoy it, and now is definitely the time to give it a try.
Earth and Saturn are at their closest approach to each other in 2012, something called opposition. That's when the Earth in its orbit around the sun finds itself in a line between Saturn and the sun.
This happens every 378 days or so, or just over a year. The reason it takes a little more than a year is that Saturn is also orbiting the sun, although much more slowly. Once every 29 years, and during the 365 days that is Earth's solar circuit, Saturn progresses about 1/29 of its orbit around the sun.
Because of that, the Earth needs a little time to catch up to be in a line with Saturn as you can see in the diagram. The ringed wonder is still way off, at 811 million miles, but it's a heck of a lot closer then it was about six months ago when it was nearly a billion miles down the celestial block.
Another advantage of opposition is that Saturn is available all night for viewing, rising at sunrise and setting at sunset.
After evening twilight, cast your eyes to the low east-southeast skies and you'll see two bright stars side by side. The one on the right is actually a star, Spica, the brightest in the large but faint constellation Virgo the Virgin. The object on the left is Saturn, which has a very pale yellow tinge to it.
You can try to get a close look at Saturn with your telescope then, but you'll probably be a little disappointed. It will look a little fuzzy early in the evening when Saturn is low, because you are viewing it through Earth's blurring atmospheric shell. A late-night viewing party, around 11 p.m. should be better.
Don't forget to acclimatize your telescope and all of the eyepieces for at least to 45 minutes before you party with Saturn.
Start viewing Saturn with using a low-power-magnification eyepiece and work up to higher magnifications. With any telescope you will reach a limiting magnification depending on its light gathering ability, which is directly related to the aperture.
Take long continuous views of Saturn so your eye adjusts to the level of light. Also, no matter how the clear the sky is, upper atmospheric winds can muddy up the images. If you hang in there long enough the winds may calm down enough to really let you enjoy the ringed wonder of our solar system.
There are some nights, though, when that just won't happen. If the stars seem to be twinkling more than usual it's a sign of a lot of wind aloft. A great website to check conditions and transparency is called "Clear Sky Clock." Just type that in to your browser, and select the state and nearest city. It will provide a 36- to 48-hour forecast that is pretty accurate.
Saturn is basically a 75,000-mile wide ball of gas, making it the second largest planet in our solar system. Saturn's hallmark, though, is its wonderful, intricate ring system that spans a diameter over 175,000 miles.
Over the past several years the ring system has been on edge from our viewpoint. The ring system, made up of billions of boulders, rocks, pebbles, dust and ice is vast in width, but only about 50 feet thick. During the next several years we'll see them even better as they approach maximum angle from edge-on in 2017.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, "Washington Starwatch," available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.
Story tags » Star Gazing

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