Astronomers have noticed a change on Saturn. The planet’s rings are getting thinner and thinner and the detailsÂ in the dark bandsÂ are getting harder to observe. What’s more, at this rate, Saturn’s rings will have completely vanished by Sept. 4, 2009!
But don’t pack up your telescopes quite yet, there’s no reason to be alarmed. This phenomenon occurs every 14 to 15 years and the explanation is down to an astronomical optical illusion called “ring plane crossing”…
In 1612, Galileo noticed something was awry with the beautiful gas giant. The distinctive rings of Saturn were shrinking until he was unable to see them any more. The situation was so strange that Galileo even stopped observing the planet (most likely through frustration!). He had discovered the rings two years earlier and was instantly entranced by them. He once wrote to his Medici patrons on the discovery in 1610: “I found another very strange wonder, which I should like to make known to their Highnessesâ€¦” so you can imagine his confusion when the rings slipped out of view.
Ring plane crossings occur periodically when the tilt and position in Saturn’s orbit combine to allow astronomers a unique side-onÂ view of the rings. Far from being a loss, looking at the paper-thin rings side-on will remove the glare from the bright rings giving astronomers a superb opportunity to see the icy moons orbiting close to Saturn. Also, Saturn’s strangely blue north pole should be observable. Saturn is better known for its brown-golden clouds of gas, but in high latitudes, these clouds thin out to reveal a blue dome. Cancelling the light from Saturn’s rings may provide a perfect environment to see the blue from Earth and to view the points of bright light shining off the small moons.
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So dust off those telescopes, a once-in-14-year astronomical opportunity is approaching…