First Lights: Saturn & Other Sky Sights for the New Year

December 29, 2003

Richard Tresch Fienberg, Editor in Chief
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Note to Editors/Producers: This release is accompanied by high-quality photographs and illustrations and an animation.

Every holiday season, hundreds of thousands of shiny new telescopes are given to good girls and boys (and moms and dads) around the world. Be it a long, sleek tube or a compact marvel of computerized wizardry, every new telescope surely has an owner itching to try it out. So why wait? Winter evenings often feature crisp, transparent skies with a dazzling canopy of stars and planets.

"Most telescopes provide fine views of the Moon and bright planets," advises Richard Tresch Fienberg, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, "and these are traditionally the first celestial targets tracked down by budding starwatchers." The Moon and Saturn are probably the most spectacular objects of all, and by good luck both are particularly well placed in the evening sky right now.

The Moon

When Galileo first turned his telescope to the Moon in 1609, he was expecting to see the smooth orb predicted by ancient Greek philosophers. What he saw instead was a body covered with mountains, valleys, and craters. In one glance, Galileo turned our whole view of the universe upside-down. Suddenly Earth stopped seeming so unique; the Moon was obviously a body much like our own world.

Anyone can relive Galileo's experience — even the smallest telescope, at the lowest possible magnification, will reveal hundreds of mountains and craters on the Moon. The most interesting place to look is along the terminator, the sunrise-sunset line that divides the Moon's bright and dark parts. This is where the lunar shadows are most obvious, casting mountains and craters into dramatic relief. The Moon is visible in the evening sky throughout the last week of December and the first week of January, part of the cycle of phases that it repeats every month.

Saturn and Its Rings

The beautiful ringed planet Saturn rises around sunset, and you can spot it low in the east after the sky gets fully dark. Saturn is the bright "star" to the left of the constellation Orion, and it is now brighter than any star in that part of the sky except for Sirius, which rises a couple of hours later and will be considerably lower. The nearly full Moon is next to Saturn on January 6th.

On New Year's Eve, Saturn makes its closest approach to us in 29 years, passing 748,300,000 miles from Earth. This distance is only marginally closer than it was on December 17, 2002 (748,500,000 miles). By good luck, Saturn's rings are also tilted toward Earth at nearly their maximum possible angle and actually outshine the planet itself. All these factors combine to make Saturn as bright as it ever gets. Don't despair if it's cloudy on New Year's Eve, because Saturn will remain bright and easy to observe well into April.

Many veteran skywatchers credit their first telescopic view of Saturn with sparking a lifelong interest in astronomy, and it's easy to see why. Even the smallest telescope reveals the planet's pale-yellow globe completely encircled by the dazzlingly white rings, which consist of countless icy particles ranging in size from small grains to large boulders. If the air is steady, use a magnification of 100x or more to spot a dark, narrow gap in the rings. Called the Cassini Division, this dark thread separates the inner B ring from the outer and slightly narrower A ring. Keep an eye out for a little "star" in Saturn's vicinity; that's Titan, the planet's largest moon.

Jupiter and Its Moons

Stay out a little later, past 10 p.m., and you'll see Jupiter slowly climbing above the east-northeast horizon. Right now this giant planet appears five times brighter than Saturn — in fact, it outshines every star in the sky. Using a telescopic magnification of at least 100x, you should be able to make out a pair of dusky bands girding Jupiter's midsection. These dark equatorial "belts" and the bright "zone" between them are cloud features akin to jet streams high in the Jovian atmosphere. Telescopes with main mirrors or lenses at least 6 inches across may reveal the famous Great Red Spot, a huge cyclonic storm larger than Earth, which has been rather pale in recent years and can be easily overlooked.

While watching Jupiter, your eye will immediately be drawn to a series of moons roughly aligned with the planet's "stripes." These are the Galilean satellites, named for the famous Italian astronomer who discovered them in 1610. Over time you'll notice their movement as they shuttle around Jupiter. Sometimes not all four moons are visible: occasionally one of them ducks behind the planet or is hidden in its shadow. In larger telescopes they (or their shadows) can be glimpsed crossing Jupiter's disk.

Other Sky Sights

There's more to the night sky than planets, of course, and some of the best celestial treats are on display on December and January evenings. The familiar constellation Orion, the Hunter, climbs in the east after sunset. Look for a distinctive trio of bright stars in a nearly vertical line: the Hunter's Belt. Just a few degrees to their south (lower right), you'll find the Orion Nebula, a luminous, swirling cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming by the hundreds. This nebula is obvious in any telescope, and a high-magnification eyepiece should reveal a tight quartet of stars near its center called the Trapezium.

If you follow the line of Orion's belt up, away from the horizon, you come first to the bright yellow-orange star Aldebaran and then to a tight knot of stars called the Pleiades. This grouping is also known as the Seven Sisters, and in Japanese it's called Subaru — look for them on this automaker's logo! Through binoculars or a telescope at low magnification, the Pleiades cluster shows dozens of stars. Astronomers have found that the entire cluster has about 500 stars in all.

"To get the most from your new telescope, be patient," advises Fienberg. "Spend time with each object, and get to know it. Much of what the universe has to offer is sublime." Too many first-time telescope users expect an explosion of Hubble-like color through the eyepiece, he explains, when in fact our night vision sees almost everything as shades of gray.

More tips on skywatching and how to get the most out of your telescope can be found in our online Observing section. You can even create a customized sky chart for your location, showing the stars and planets for any time or date.

Graphics and an Animation

Sky & Telescope is making the following illustrations and animation available to the news media. Permission is granted for one-time, nonexclusive use in print and broadcast media, as long as appropriate credits (as noted in each caption) are included. Web publication must include a link to

Saturn in Gemini
The planet Saturn shines brightly in the evening sky this winter, making a fine target for new telescopes unwrapped during the holidays. To find Saturn, face east in early evening and match this chart to the star patterns you see in the sky.
Sky & Telescope illustration by Gregg Dinderman.
Saturn in Gemini
This is a simplified version of the preceding chart; it shows fewer stars and is better suited for use on television.
Sky & Telescope illustration by Gregg Dinderman.
Orion and Taurus with Saturn
The constellations Orion, the Hunter, and Taurus, the Bull, are well up in the east-southeast early in winter evenings. In early 2004 Saturn joins the scene at upper left (it's in the feet of Gemini, the Twins, not shown here). This view, obtained on the night of December 27-28, 2003, is 40° tall by 60° wide. It includes Taurus's two naked-eye star clusters: the Hyades and the Pleiades.
Sky & Telescope photo by Richard Tresch Fienberg.
Saturn in a telescope
Don't expect Hubble-like performance from your backyard telescope. These images suggest how the ringed planet Saturn might look when seen through a small, inexpensive telescope at low magnification on a mediocre night (top) and through a larger, better instrument on a night when the air is especially still (bottom).
Sky & Telescope illustration; source: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope.
Jupiter in Leo
The constellation Leo, the Lion, climbs above the east-northeast horizon late on winter evenings. It is characterized by a backward question mark (the lion's mane, right of center) and a right triangle (the lion's hindquarters, left of center). This winter Leo has the planet Jupiter at his hind feet — it's the brightest object in this 40°-by-60° picture taken on the night of December 27-28, 2003.
Sky & Telescope photo by Richard Tresch Fienberg.
Jupiter and moons
Click on this image to see a time-lapse sequence showiong the motion of Jupiter's four Galilean satellites (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) over 1½ hours. Note the rotation of Jupiter itself during this sequence — the giant planet rotates in just under 10 hours.
Animation by António Cidadão; courtesy Sky & Telescope.
Jupiter with 3 Moons
Jupiter with three of its Galilean satellites: Ganymede (lower left), Io (nearest the planet), and Europa (upper right). German astrophotographer Frank Specht recorded this scene on November 19, 2002, using a 90-mm (3.5-inch) refractor and a Philips ToUcam video camera.
Image by Frank Specht; courtesy Sky & Telescope.
The Pleiades
The Pleiades star cluster is a splendid target for small telescopes, which show dozens of its stars in an attractive grouping. (Only a large telescope will show the dust enveloping some of the brighter stars.) Astronomers estimate that the cluster formed less than 100 million years ago. Located in the constellation Taurus, the Bull, the Pleiades lie about 400 light-years from Earth.
Sky & Telescope photo by Richard Tresch Fienberg.
Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula is the brightest celestial gas cloud visible to Northern Hemisphere observers, and it takes only a small telescope to see it well. (Only a very large telescope will show even a hint of the dazzling colors captured in long-exposure photos like this one.) Atronomers estimate that the nebula is 1,500 light-years from Earth.
Sky & Telescope photo by Richard Tresch Fienberg.

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