Viewing Saturn With and Without a Telescope

There are many reasons for getting a telescope and peering into the vast wonders of space but for many people, Saturn is the reason. Due to its storied history and magnificent rings, Saturn has drawn people to the sky for generations.

Getting To Know Saturn

Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and is the second-largest planet in the solar system after Jupiter. Like all of the planets beyond the asteroid belt, Saturn is a gas giant planet made up of primarily light hydrogen and helium gas. Saturn has a diameter that is nine times that of Earth’s.

Since it is a gas planet it has no known solid surface. Even if there was a surface hiding somewhere in Saturn’s gaseous innards, the pressure and gravity would be so intense that nothing could make it into the planet and back out without being trapped or destroyed. Some scientists theorize that Saturn and the other gas giants might have a solid core or semi-solid layer surrounding the core but not much else.

Many people know Saturn for its rings. Saturn is not the only planet in the solar system to have rings but Saturn’s rings are the most pronounced and the most visible. The rings are made up primarily of ice and tiny chunks of rock that orbit around the planet.

The rings are thought to be the remnants of old comets and astroids that got caught by Saturn’s gravitational pull and broken up. The rings have distinct bands that orbit the planet at differing speeds. The three main rings are simply called A, B, and C.

Catching a Glimpse

Saturn is a unique and interesting planet in our solar system and naturally draws a lot of curiosity from stargazers. Luckily, Saturn is visible to the naked eye and easily spottable on most nights. Saturn will appear as a bright yellow star in the sky completely unaided.

Saturn is the farthest planet in the solar system to be discovered without the aid of a telescope and has been part of human astronomy and astrology for thousands of years. Like all planets, Saturn follows a predetermined path through the sky based on its rotation around the sun.

Everything in the solar system rotates around the sun in set orbits. Each planet’s orbit does not change but each planet can have an orbit that is not very well synched with that of Earth’s. Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes 29.47 Earth years to complete.

In contrast, stars do not orbit around the sun as planets do. Stars change position as the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits around the sun but their positions remain virtually static compared to the position of the solar system.

This leads to planets having a wandering effect through the sky and many planets will have a set path where they cross through different constellations at different times. At one point in history, this was highly confusing to ancient stargazers and philosophers alike.

Time Of Year Factor

This also means that planets can be tracked based on the time of year and a planetary calendar. Saturn will move in a predictable and traceable pattern through the sky and once that path is known to find Saturn amongst the other stars will be fairly simple. It’s all about knowing where and when to look.

The best time to view Saturn, and indeed any planet, is on its oppositional date. This is the time when the object in question is closest to the Earth on its orbital path and will appear brightest in the sky. Viewing any object, including Saturn, on its oppositional date is the best time to observe it with the naked eye.

Breaking Out the Telescope

After gazing up at Saturn with the naked eye, one begins to get that age-old itch to see the rings of Saturn in all of their glory. They cannot be seen with the naked eye. So how can the rings of Saturn be viewed?

Some planets and objects become more visible with the use of high magnification binoculars. Unfortunately, Saturn’s rings are not one of those nearby objects. While binoculars will help define the shape of Saturn more clearly, the actual rings themselves will remain elusive.

To properly see Saturn’s rings the use of a telescope is required. Any telescope with at least twenty times magnification will be able to pick out the distinctive shape of Saturn’s rings.

Greater magnification will bring the rings more into focus, twenty-five times magnification will give the user a good look at the rings while a fifty times magnification device will allow you to see the distinct bands in the rings themselves.

Once Saturn has been located in the sky, its been tracked and ready to view, the telescope is in position but when the first look is finally taken the rings aren’t there. What gives?

Like Earth, Saturn is tilted on its axis. During its orbit around the sun, in conjunction with Earth’s orbit, the position of Saturn relative to its tilt changes. This makes it appear in different positions at different times during its nearly thirty-year orbit around the sun.

Saturn Oppositions

Every few years the amount of rings that are visible on Earth becomes extremely narrow and hard to see and at the worst times possibly cannot be seen at all. This can be avoided by keeping track of what position Saturn and its rings are to Earth before you schedule a potential viewing.

When the rings are at their greatest visibility the views are truly spectacular and Saturn will appear much brighter in the sky. Viewing Saturn is almost always possible with the naked eye and a telescope but the quality of the view of the rings will change based on its relative position to Earth.

Moons, Moons, and More Moons

According to NASA Saturn has 53 official confirmed moons and 29 unconfirmed moons. This means that Saturn has 82 objects orbiting it at any given time and that is in addition to the rings!

Titan is Saturn’s largest and easily observable moon. Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system after Ganymede and is larger than the planet Mercury. The moon is also unique in that it is the only known moon to hold a substantial atmosphere.

Titan’s size and atmosphere make it a highly reflective body and easy to see with a telescope and occasionally with binoculars if conditions are right. Titan is usually seen as a bright object close to Saturn when viewed through a telescope.

If you have a strong enough telescope then Saturn’s many other moons will become visible as well. With enough light and the right atmospheric conditions, many of Saturn’s moons will be visible in the foreground of the planet. The moons of Saturn are many and varied so some will appear silhouetted against the planet while others can potentially be seen orbiting around the planet.

If observed long enough and over time a determined viewer will be able to see many of the moons moving around Saturn. It will only take patience and a strong enough telescope.

Optional Addition: Filters

The great thing about modern telescopes is that they are versatile and customizable. So many accessories and add-ons can be found for different needs while observing the sky. Filters are one type of accessory.

Some people claim that they like to view the sky without filters and see it in its natural beauty but for those who are curious or want a different experience there are a few filters that might help.

For viewing Saturn specifically the two filters that are recommended most is the moon and skyglow filter as well as a blue light filter.

The skyglow filter is a general filter that works to reduce glare and excess light while viewing the sky. As Saturn is a relatively dim planet, a skyglow filter can help to enhance Saturn’s light and make it easier to find in the sky. It brings out the red color of stars and planets as well as sharpens the images of light sources to reduce fuzziness and glare.

The other filter that can enhance your Saturn viewing experience is the #80A blue light filter. The blue light filter will make the cloud bands that swirl on the planet, as well as the distinct pole regions, appear more visible. Without the filter, Saturn might appear more featureless than otherwise.

Filters are not necessary to enjoy the views of Saturn but they do provide another way to get a good look at the planet. There are other filters available depending on what kind of use is needed and can enhance different parts of any planet if that is the goal.

For hundreds of years, Saturn has fascinated people with its presence in the sky. It was named after the goddess of love and beauty and that was before the rings were even discovered. Today, Saturn is one of the most unique and beautiful sights in the solar system as well as one of the most accessible to those who want to bask in its glory.