After having a brief discussion with friends about the thick and thin of Saturn’s ring system the other night, I decided to observe them and share what I saw and then post some hard facts about what’s ahead.
After Leo rose high and got his tail out of the weeds during the wee hours of November 9, I was able to easily find Saturn naked eye-all bright and shiny in the east. The moon had sat, and the sky was comfortably dark. Meaning it was just above freezing, so I did not have to bundle up like the Michelin Man and waddle around the yard like a big clumsy duck.
The night was cloudless and I saw a few meteors while just admiring the sky above. The Milky Way was directly overhead, and looked like a faint mist of glitter had been scattered by migrating birds headed south.
A quick and dirty sketch of Saturn made by observing with an 8mm eyepiece through my 80mm (3-inch) refractor is below. The rings are nearing edge on, so the rings appeared thick, like someone had drawn a line with a grease pencil through the planet.
When the rings are not edge on, it’s easy to see space between them and the orb of the planet plus gaps within the rings. It was not easy to see any gaps but I was using a small scope and that bears weight on the lack of detail I saw. The scope was also not at ambient temperature so tube currents were making Saturn boil. Larger scopes at ambient temperature and higher magnification should coax more subtle features into view.
Shades of Gray
Ooh, look at those rings. This is one of the best panoramas of the ring system I’ve seen. It reminds me of tapestry. Rich shades of grey, charcoal and brown splashed with silver and black here and there are woven into a mesmerizing sight.
The Skinny on the Rings
Since it takes Saturn 29 years to go around the Sun-every 14-15 years we see the rings edge on. The September ring plane crossing will be difficult to observe since Saturn will be very near the Sun.
Nov. 15- Ring inclination is only -1.5 degrees from edge on- Look now!
Dec. 28-31 Inclination is -1 degrees.
Jan. 1- Saturn starts retrograde loop and rings are inclined -1 degrees. This is the thinnest they will appear while Saturn is high enough and not too close to the Sun for 15 years. (The next edge on ring crossing is not great either, but we’ll deal with that in 15 years)
When the rings are edge on like they will be in January, try finding Saturn’s moon, Mimas.
Feb. - Ring inclination is -1.3 degrees
March 8- Saturn at opposition, rings inclined -2.3 degrees
April- Rings inclined -3.4 degrees
May- Rings are inclined -4.1 degrees, the widest they will be until November. After the 17th Saturn resumes eastward motion.
June 15- Rings inclined -3.7 degrees
July 15- Rings inclined -3.2 degrees; Saturn is magnitude 1.1 and rarely this faint.
Aug. 29- Rings inclined -1.9 degrees, but Saturn is very low in the evening sky.
Sept. 4- Ring plane passage,(edge on from Earth) but Saturn is prohibitively close to the Sun at only 11.4 degrees away.
Sept. 17- Saturn in conjunction with the Sun
Oct. 15- Saturn is a morning object. Rings inclined +2.3 degrees.
Nov. 15- Rings inclined +3.1 degrees
Dec. 31- Rings inclined +4.3 degrees
** A negative sign indicates Saturn’s north pole is tipped away from us. This is due to Earth’s orbital position –which will be our perspective until mid May.
After May, the rings will tip downward until they are almost invisible when they are edge on September 4. After September’s conjunction, the plus sign indicates Saturn’s north pole is tipped toward us.