A Lord of Rings: Saturn at Opposition 2016

Saturn 2016

They’re back. After a wintertime largely devoid of evening worlds, the planets are once again in the evening sky. First Jupiter, then Mars have crossed opposition over the past few months, and now Saturn is set to take center stage later next week, reaching opposition at 7:00 Universal Time (UT) on the night of June 2/3rd. This places the ringed world in a position of favorable evening viewing, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west, and riding highest near local midnight across the meridian.

Opposition 2016 sees the planet Saturn looping through the southern realm of the constellation Ophiuchus, making a retrograde run this summer at the Scorpius border before looping back and resuming eastward motion. That’s right: Saturn currently occupies the dreaded ‘13th house,’ of Ophiuchus, for all you Snake-Bearers out there. Saturn is currently at bright as it can be, at magnitude +0.04.

Saturn rising on the night of June 2nd. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.
Saturn rising on the night of June 2nd. Image credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Saturn reaches opposition once every 378 days, as it orbits the Sun at a leisurely pace every 29.5 years. 2016 and the next few oppositions sees Saturn ‘bottoming out,’ sitting around -20 degrees south. Saturn won’t peek northward across the celestial equator again until March 2026. This places the 2016 appearance of Saturn high in the sky south of the equator, transiting about 30 degrees above the southern horizon around midnight for folks observing around 40 degrees north latitude. Saturn also begins looping towards the star-rich region of the galactic equator for a crossing it late next year in December 2017. Saturn sits 9 Astronomical Units (AU) or 1.4 billion kilometers distant on June 3rd, a slightly larger distance than usual, owing to the fact that the planet is headed towards aphelion on April 17th, 2018.

The waxing gibbous Moon passes 3.2 degrees north from Saturn on Sunday, June 19th, just a day before reaching Full.

Watch for a sudden brightening of the planet in early June, known as an ‘opposition surge’ due to what is known as the Seeliger effect. This is a coherent back-scattering of light, focusing it similar to highway retro-reflectors shining your headlights back at you at night. In this case, the Sun is the ‘headlight,’ and the millions of snowball moonlets hiding their shadows from view reaching 100% illumination are the highway retro-reflectors. The effect is subtle, to be sure, but serves to raise the brightness of the planet by about half a magnitude. This should be apparent in an animation sequence shot before, during and after over the span of a about a week. Any takers?

Almost there... the widening tilt of Saturn's rings. image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@failedprotostar).
Almost there… the widening tilt of Saturn’s rings. image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@failedprotostar).

And speaking of the rings, here’s another reason to check out Saturn this opposition 2016 season. The tilt of rings is about 26 degrees wide as seen from our Earthly perspective… about as wide as they can be. Saturn’s rings were last edge on in 2009, and reach a maximum width of 27 degrees on October 16th, 2017 before slowly heading towards edge on again in 2025.

The path of Saturn through the last half of 2016. Image credit: Starry Night Education software.
The path of Saturn through the last half of 2016. Image credit: Starry Night Education software.

At the eyepiece, Saturn shows a yellowish disk 18” extended to 43” across if you count the rings. Crank up the magnification to over 100x under good seeing, and the black thread of the Cassini division jumps into view. Saturn has 62 moons in all, with +9th magnitude Titan being the brightest. You’re looking at the most distant surface outpost of humanity, the site of the 2005 landing of the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander. Six moons are readily visible in a small telescope, while the fainter moons Hyperion and Phoebe present a challenge to owners of extreme light buckets. Also, as Saturn heads past opposition and towards eastern quadrature 90 degrees from the Sun on September 2nd, 2016, watch for the shadow of the bulk of the planet, cast back across the rings.

A sampling of the Moons of Saturn. Image credit: Stellarium.
A sampling of the Moons of Saturn. Image credit: Stellarium.

We never miss a chance to observe Saturn if it’s above the horizon. Saturn is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser for any sidewalk astronomy session, and no one forgets their first glimpse of the glorious ringed world. You can just imagine how much consternation this bizarre-looking planet must have caused Galileo. You can tell just how primitive his first telescope was, as his sketches show off Saturn as more of a two-handled ‘coffee cup’ in appearance. Christaan Huygens first deduced something of the true nature of Saturn’s rings in 1655, correctly claiming that they are physically separated from the disk.

Don’t miss Saturn at opposition next week!

Saturn at Opposition: Our 2014 Guide

Planet lovers can rejoice: one of the finest jewels of the solar system in returning to the evening night sky.

The planet Saturn reaches opposition next month on May 10th. This means that as the Sun sets to the west, Saturn will rise “opposite” to it in the east, remaining well positioned for observation in the early evening hours throughout the summer season. In fact, we’ll have four of the five naked eye planets above the horizon at once for our evening viewing pleasure in the month of May, as Jupiter also rides high to the west at sunset, Mars just passed opposition last month and Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on May 25th. Venus is the solitary holdout, spending a majority of 2014 in the dawn sky.

Saturn will shine at magnitude +0.3 this month and its disk spans an apparent 19,” or 44” if you take into account the apparent width of its rings. The rings are currently tipped open 22 degrees with respect to our line of sight. The ring opening is widening, and will reach a maximum of over 25 degrees in 2017 before the trend reverses. Anyone who remembers observing Saturn back in 2009 will recall that its rings were edge on to our view. This widening of Saturn’s rings also lends itself to a curious effect: although we’re in a cycle of oppositions that are getting farther away — Saturn is 12.5 million kilometres or 0.083 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) more distant in 2014 than it was during opposition last year as it’s headed towards aphelion in 2018 — its widening rings are actually making it appear a bit brighter.

The path of Saturn through the constellation Libra from April through October 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.
The path of Saturn through the constellation Libra from April through October 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

This year’s opposition will find Saturn in the astronomical constellation of Libra, where it’ll spend most of 2014. Oppositions of the ringed planet are set to continue to “head south” until 2018, and won’t occur north of the celestial equator again until 2026. I remember when oppositions of Saturn returned to the constellation Virgo a few years back — where I had first looked at it with my 60mm Jason refractor as a teenager — and realizing that I had now been into observational astronomy for roughly one “Saturnian year.”

The ancients had little knowledge of how unique Saturn was. The faintest and slowest moving of the classical planets, even Galileo knew that something was up when he turned his first primitive telescope towards it. His sketches depict Saturn as something similar to a double handled coffee cup, a testament to how poor his view really was. It wouldn’t be until Christiaan Huygens in 1655 that the true nature of Saturn’s rings was deduced as a flat and separate feature from the disk.

At opposition, the disk of the planet casts a shadow straight back from our point of view. This vantage slowly changes as the planet moves towards eastern quadrature on August 9th and we get a glimpse slightly off to one side of the planet. After opposition, the shadow of the disk can again be seen casting back onto the rings.

An outstanding IPhone 4S capture of Saturn on April 20th, 2014. Credit: Andrew Symes, @FailedProtostar.
An outstanding IPhone 4S capture of Saturn on April 20th, 2014. Credit: Andrew Symes, @FailedProtostar.

Another interesting phenomenon to watch out for near opposition is known as the Seeliger effect. Also sometimes referred to as the “opposition surge,” this sudden brightening of the disk and rings is a subtle effect, as the globe of Saturn and all of those tiny little ice crystals reach 100% illumination. This effect can be noted to the naked eye on successive nights around opposition, and will get more prominent towards 2017. Coherent-backscattering of light has also been proposed as a possible explanation of this phenomenon. Perhaps a video sequence capturing this effect is in order for skilled astro-imagers in 2014.

Through a small telescope, the first feature that becomes apparent is Saturn’s glorious system of rings. Crank up the magnification, and you’ll note a dark groove in the ring system. This is the Cassini Division, first described by Giovanni Cassini in 1675.

Here’s a challenge we came across some years back: can you see the disk of Saturn through the Cassini Division? Right around opposition is a good time to attempt this unusual feat of visual athletics.

A sample simulation depicting the orientation of Saturn's observable moons on the night of  May 9th. Created using Starry Night Education software.
A sample simulation depicting the orientation of Saturn’s observable moons on the night of May 9th. Created using Starry Night Education software.

Saturn’s large moon Titan is an easy catch at magnitude +8 in a small telescope. Titan is the second largest moon in the solar system. Place it in a direct orbit about the Sun, and it would be considered a planet, no problem.  7 of Saturn’s 62 known moons are within reach of a small telescope. In addition to Titan, they are, with quoted magnitudes: Mimas (+13), Enceladus (+12), Tethys (+10), Rhea (+10), Dione (+11) and Iapetus. Iapetus is of special interest, as it brightens from +11.9 to magnitude +10.2 as it traces out its 79 day orbit. We always knew there was something unique about this moon, and NASA’s Cassini mission revealed the world to have two distinctly different hemispheres with vastly different albedos during its close 2007 flyby.

The close passage of the Full Moon near Saturn on May 14th. Created using Stellarium.
The close passage of the Full Moon near Saturn on May 14th. Created using Stellarium.

Also, be sure to check out Saturn on the night of May 14th — just 4 nights after opposition — as the Full Moon sits less than a degree south of the ringed planet. Can you see both in the same telescopic field of view? Can you nab Saturn next to the rising daytime Moon low to the horizon just before local sunset? The Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) Saturn for viewers based in Australia and New Zealand on the 14th. This is only one of 11 occultations — nearly one for each lunation — of Saturn by the Moon in 2014. Unfortunately, the best one for North America occurs in the daytime on August 31st, though it too may be observable telescopically.

The foot print of the May 14th occultation of Saturn by the Moon. Credit: Occult 4.0.
The footprint of the May 14th occultation of Saturn by the Moon. Credit: Occult 4.0.

Finally, this evening apparition of the planet runs through northern hemisphere summer and fall until Saturn reaches solar conjunction on November 18th. So get those homemade planetcams out, send those pics in to Universe Today, and be sure to join in to the Virtual Star Party every Sunday Night… Saturn is sure to be featured!

The Return of Saturn: A Guide to the 2013 Opposition

A star party favorite is about to return to evening skies.

The planet Saturn can now be spied low to the southeast for northern hemisphere observers (to the northeast for folks in the southern) rising about 1-2 hours after local sunset this early April. That gap will continue to close until Saturn is opposite to the Sun in the sky later this month and rises as the Sun sets.

Opposition occurs on April 28th at 8:00 UT/4:00AM EDT. Saturn will shine at magnitude +0.1 and appear 18.8” in diameter excluding the rings, which give it a total angular diameter of 43”.

Saturn has just passed into the faint constellation Libra for 2013, although its springtime retrograde loop will bring it back into Virgo briefly. Both the 2013 and 2014 opposition will occur in Libra. Saturn will also pass 26’ from +4.2 Kappa Virginis on July 3rd as it moves back into Virgo while in retrograde before resuming direct motion back into Libra.

Saturn currently lies about 15° to the lower left of the +1.04 magnitude star Spica, also known as Alpha Virginis. Remember the handy saying to “Spike to Spica” from the handle of the Big Dipper asterism to locate the region. Another handy finder tip; stars twinkle, planet generally don’t. That is, unless your skies are extremely turbulent!

With an orbital period 29.46 years, Saturn moves slowly eastward year to year, taking 2-3 years to cross through each constellation along the ecliptic.

Oppositions are roughly 378 days apart and thus move forward on our calendar by about two weeks a year. Successive oppositions also move about 13° eastward per year.

Saturn as imaged by the author on June 11th, 2012.
Saturn as imaged by the author on June 11th, 2012.

Oppositions of the ringed planet are also currently becoming successively favorable for southern observers over the coming years. Saturn crossed into the southern celestial hemisphere some years back, and will be at its southernmost in 2018.

Saturn won’t pass north of the celestial equator again until early 2026. Saturn is 15 million kilometres farther from us than opposition last year as its moving toward aphelion in 2018.

Saturn will reach eastern quadrature this summer on July 28th and stand its highest south at sunset northern hemisphere observers. South of the equator, it will pass directly overhead or transit to the north. Saturn will be with us for most of the remainder of 2013 in evening skies until reaching solar conjunction on November 6th.

Looking at Saturn with binoculars, you’ll immediately note that something is amiss.

You’re getting a view similar to that of Galileo, who sketched Saturn as a sort of “double handled cup.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1655 that Christian Huygens correctly hypothesized that the rings of Saturn are a flat disk that is not physically in contact with the planet.

Huygens also discovered the large moon Titan. Shining at magnitude +8.5 and taking 16 days to orbit Saturn, Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system after Ganymede. Titan would easily be a planet in its own right if it orbited the Sun. Titan is easily picked out observing Saturn at low power through a telescope.

Saturn's system of moons visible through a small telescope. orientation is for May 9th, 2013. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Saturn’s system of moons visible through a small telescope. orientation is for May 9th, 2013. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Observing Saturn at slightly higher magnification, five moons interior to Titan become apparent. From outside in, they are Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas. Exterior to Titan is the curious moon of Iapetus. Taking 79 days to complete one orbit of Saturn, Iapetus varies in brightness from magnitude +11.9 to +10.2, or a factor of over 5 times. Arthur C. Clarke placed the final monolith in the book adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Iapetus for this reason. Close-ups from the Cassini spacecraft reveal a two-faced world covered with a dark leading hemisphere and a bright trailing side, but alas, no alien artifacts.

But the centerpiece of observing Saturn through a telescope is its brilliant and complex system of rings. The A, B, and C rings are easily apparent through a backyard telescope, as is the large spacing known as the Cassini Gap.

The rings are also currently tilted in respect to our Earthly vantage point. The rings were edge-on in 2009 and vanish when this occurs every 15-16 years.

This year, we see the rings of Saturn at a respectable 19 ° opening and widening. The rings will appear at their widest at over 25° in 2017 and then become edge-on again in 2025.

The average tilt of Saturn's ring system as seen from Earth spanning 2008-2026. (Graph created by author).
The average tilt (in degrees) of Saturn’s ring system as seen from Earth spanning 2008-2026. (Graph created by author).

The ring system of Saturn adds 0.7 magnitudes of overall brightness to the planet at opposition this year.

Another interesting optical phenomenon to watch for in the days leading up to opposition is known as the “opposition surge” in brightness, or the Seeliger effect.  This is a retro-reflector effect familiar to many as high-beam headlights strike a highway sign. Think of the millions of particles making up Saturn’s rings as tiny little “retro-reflectors” focusing sunlight back directly along our line of sight. The opposition surge has been noted for other planets, but it’s most striking for Saturn when its rings are at their widest.

The disk of Saturn will cast a shadow straight back onto the rings around opposition and thus vanish from our view. The shadow across the back of the rings will then become more prominent over subsequent months, reaching its maximum angle at quadrature this northern hemisphere summer and then beginning to slowly slide back behind the planet again. A true challenge is to glimpse the disk of the through the Cassini gap in the rings… you’ll need clear steady skies and high magnification for this one!

It’s also interesting to note a very shallow partial lunar eclipse occurs with Saturn nearby just three days prior to opposition on April 25th. Saturn will appear 4° north of the Moon and it may be just possible to image both in the same frame.

The location of Saturn and the Full Moon during the April 25th partial eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The location of Saturn and the Full Moon during the April 25th partial eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Saturn takes about 30 years to make its way around the zodiac. I remember just beginning to observe Saturn will my new 60mm Jason refractor as a teenager in 1983 as it crossed the constellation Virgo.Hey, I’ve been into astronomy for over one “Saturnian year” now… where will the next 30 years find us?