The planet Saturn is currently at its closest to Earth for 2023 and is better visible from the UK than it has been for 10 years. Even a small telescope will show its splendid rings, which make it a unique sight in the Solar System.
Since 2013, Saturn has been quite low in the sky as seen from the northern hemisphere, reaching its maximum south point in 2018. That year, it was so low that even the best telescopes gave only a comparatively poor view. Its low elevation above the horizon meant that it was subject to turbulence in our atmosphere. But now it is climbing to a reasonable 26° above the horizon, escaping the worst of the atmospheric effects.
So far, the recent influence of the jet stream and generally poor weather has hindered our UK members’ ability to get good images of Saturn this year. Even so, it’s worth looking at the planet with any telescope if you’ve never done so – it’s still a splendid sight.
You can find Saturn quite easily in the late evening sky. Look over to the south-east, fairly low down, and you’ll spot Saturn as the brightest object in that part of the sky, apart from the Moon which will be nearby from 28 August to 1 September. On 30 August, Saturn is directly above the Moon so you can’t miss it.
As Saturn is a planet, it doesn’t twinkle like a star, which is a point of light. Even with binoculars you can just see that it has a disc, probably slightly elongated because of its rings. Even with the naked eye you may notice that Saturn is slightly yellowish. These two factors make Saturn easy to distinguish from the other planets. Jupiter is the only other planet around in the evenings at the moment, and that rises later in the evening. You may spot it over to the east, after around 11 pm. It’s whiter and brighter than Saturn.
Although the other outer planets also have rings, they are much fainter than Saturn’s, and can’t be seen visually. They aren’t solid, but are composed of large numbers of small particles, mostly ice. When Saturn is exactly opposite the Sun in the sky, on 27 August and a day or two on either side, Saturn’s rings appear particularly bright, as the ice crystals behave like cat’s eyes and reflect the Sun’s light back in our direction.
The tile of the rings as seen from Earth is slowly closing, until in 2025 we’ll see them edge-on, and for a few days Saturn will appear to be virtually ringless. Following that the rings will open out again, although we’ll be seeing their south side rather than their north side. So make the most of seeing the rings while they are still easily visible!
Any telescope that magnifies more than about 40 times will show the rings easily. So dig out that telescope that has been patiently waiting for you in its box under the bed and take a look. Here are a couple of tips: check during daylight that the telescope’s finder is aligned accurately, so that you can locate the planet using that first. And use the lowest magnification eyepiece to start with (the one with the largest number on its barrel, usually around 25 mm) so as to give yourself the best chance of finding the planet.
If you like what you see, why not join the SPA so that you can be ahead of the game and find out what’s coming up in the sky! Join now, as our subscription goes up in October. Right now an annual UK adult subscription costs just £25 a year – excellent value. Click here to find out more – and good viewing!