Your first view of Saturn with a telescope can introduce you to the riches of stargazing — and now is the perfect time to observe it.
Saturn is entering the early evening sky this spring just as Jupiter begins its exit in the west. Here's a quick guide to spotting the ringed planet by eye and viewing it through a telescope.
On May 10th, Saturn reaches opposition, meaning it's opposite the Sun in the sky. It rises around sunset, glides across the sky all night, and sets near sunrise. Saturn is positioned among the dim stars of Libra, which keeps it relatively low in altitude even when it's highest in the middle of the night. But you won't have trouble spotting it: now gleaming at magnitude 0.1, splendid Saturn outshines all the stars in that part of the sky.
Viewing Saturn's RingsFortunately, the planet has reached the point in its 29½-year-long orbit that allows us to see its beautiful rings tipped a wide 21° or 22° to our line of sight — nearly as wide as they can get. (In fact, these wide-open rings enhance the planet's apparent brightness to the eye.) They will continue to open even more, with minor seasonal fluctuations, until reaching a maximum of 27° in 2017.
You don't need a large telescope to get a nice view of Saturn. Even one with an aperture of just 60 mm (2.4 inches) should reveal the rings easily and, with a little more effort, the dark Cassini Division that splits the system into the outer A ring and inner B ring.
Like Jupiter, Saturn displays banded cloud tops. But its markings are more muted than Jupiter's, because there's more high-altitude haze in its upper atmosphere. You'll need a telescope at least 6 inches across to make out the bright Equatorial Zone, the slightly darker North Equatorial Belt, and the dusky North Polar Region.
As May begins, look for the thin black shadow of Saturn's globe on the rings. It diminishes just off the globe's celestial western side before opposition and reemerges on the the eastern side afterward. And watch for the Seeliger effect, a noticeable brightening of the rings for a few days around opposition.
How to Spot Saturn's Moons
Many amateur skygazers remember a first view of Saturn as the thing that opened to them the riches of astronomy — so don't let this great opportunity pass you by. Here are more tips for observing Saturn.
And, of course, take every opportunity to show Saturn to your friends and neighbors!