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!

Conjunctions to Watch For in July

The planets are slowly returning into view this month, bashfully peeking out from behind the Sun in the dawn & dusk sky. This month offers a bonanza of photogenic conjunctions, involving the Moon, planets and bright stars.

The action begins tonight on July 8th, as the waxing crescent Moon joins the planet Venus in the dusk sky. The razor thin Moon will be a challenge on Monday night, as it just passed New on the morning of the 8th at 3:14AM EDT/7:14 Universal Time (UT). The record for spotting the thin crescent with the naked eye currently stands at 15 hours and 32 minutes, completed by Stephen O’Meara on May 1990. Binoculars help considerably in this endeavor.  Wait until 15 minutes after local sunset, and then begin patiently sweeping the horizon.

Mr. Thierry Legault completed an ultimate photographic challenge earlier today, capturing the Moon at the precise moment of  New phase!

The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

This week  marks the start of lunation 1120. The Moon will be much easier to nab for observers worldwide on Tuesday night, July 9th for observers worldwide. The sighting of the waxing crescent Moon will also mark the start of the Muslim month of Ramadan for 2013. Due to the angle of the ecliptic in July, many northern hemisphere observers may not spot the Moon until Wednesday night on July 10th, about 6.7 degrees south west of -4.0 magnitude Venus.

Did you know? There are Guidelines for the Performance of Islamic Rites for Muslims aboard the International Space Station. It’s interesting to note that the timing of the rituals follows the point from which the astronaut originally embarked from the Earth, which is exclusively the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future of manned spaceflight.

Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor observed Ramadan aboard the International Space Station in 2007.

From there, the crescent Moon fattens, meeting up with Saturn and Spica on the evenings of July 15th and 16th. The Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) the bright star Spica on the evening of July 15/16th at ~3:33UT/11:33PM EDT (on the 15th) for observers in Central America and western South America. The rest of us will see a near miss worldwide.

The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter phase on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

This is the 13th in a cycle of 18 occultations of Spica by our Moon spanning 2012-2013. Spica is one of four stars brighter than magnitude +1.4 that lie close enough to the ecliptic to be occulted by our Moon, the others being Antares, Regulus and Aldebaran. Saturn will lie 3 degrees from the Moon on the evening of July 16th.

Can you nab Spica and Saturn near the Moon with binoculars in the daytime around the 15th? It can be done, using the afternoon daytime Moon as a guide. Crystal clear skies (a rarity in the northern hemisphere summertime, I know) and physically blocking the Sun behind a building or hill helps.

The waxing gibbous Moon will also occult +2.8 Alpha Librae for South Africa on July 17th around 17:09UT & +4.4th magnitude Xi Ophiuchi for much of North America on the night of July 19th-20th.

And speaking of Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo lies only a little over a degree (two Full Moon diameters) from Venus only the evenings of July 21st & the 22nd. 77.5 light years distant, Regulus is currently over 100 times fainter at magnitude +1.4. Can you squeeze both into the field of view of your telescope at low power? Venus’s mythical ‘moon’ Neith lives!

Venus can even occult Regulus on rare occasions, as last occurred on July 7th, 1959 and will happen next on October 1st, 2044.

But there’s morning action afoot as well. The planets Mars and Jupiter have emerged from solar conjunction on April 18th and June 19th, 2013 respectively, and can now be seen low in the dawn skies about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Mars and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Mars and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Mars approaches Jupiter in the dawn until the pair is only 0.79 degrees (about 48 arc minutes) apart on Monday, July 22nd. Mars shines at magnitude +1.6 and shows a tiny 3.9” disk, while Jupiter displays a 32.5” disk shining at magnitude -1.9 on this date. Conjunction occurs at about 7:00 UT/3:00 AM EDT, after which the two will begin to race apart. Mercury is visible beginning its morning apparition over 5 degrees to the lower right of the pair (see above).

Jupiter will reach opposition and reenter the evening sky on January 5th, 2014, while Mars won’t do the same until April 8th of next year. Weird factoid alert: neither Jupiter or Mars reach opposition in 2013! What effect does this have on terrestrial affairs? Absolutely none, well unless you’re a planetary imager/observer…

Mars also reaches its most northern declination of 2013 of 24 degrees in the constellation Gemini on July 16th at 7:00 AM EDT/11:00 UT.  Mars can wander as far as declination 27 degrees north, as last happened in 1993.

Finally, are you observing from southern Mexico this week and up for a true challenge? The asteroid 238 Hypatia occults a +7.4 magnitude star from 10:13-10:49 UT on July 10th in the constellation Pisces for up to 29 seconds. This event will be bright enough to watch with binoculars- check out our best prospects for asteroid occultations of stars in 2013 here and here.

Good luck, clear skies, and be sure to post those astro-pics in the Universe Today’s Flickr community!