January 6, 2005
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Taking a peek at Saturn through a telescope is fascinating any time, but the view will take on extra significance late next week. On the night of January 14, 2005, a European-built probe called Huygens will plunge into the dense atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, relaying pictures and other data as it parachutes to the surface.
"Anyone with a telescope can share in the excitement of Huygens's history-making descent by tracking down Saturn and Titan in the evening sky," advises Kelly Beatty, editor of Night Sky magazine. By coincidence, Beatty points out, mid-January is also when Saturn comes closest to both the Sun and the Earth. Better still, right now Saturn's rings are tipped toward us by 23°, nearly the maximum possible angle.
These favorable circumstances the best they've been in a quarter century make the ringed planet especially bright and easy to find. On January 13th, one day before Huygens reaches Titan, Saturn and the Sun will be directly opposite each other in our sky. That means Saturn will rise in the east at sunset, stay up all night, and set in the west as the Sun rises. (In fact, the alignment on January 13th is so perfect that, as seen from Saturn, Earth will appear to cross the Sun's face.)
Right now Saturn is easy to spot on any clear evening, and it will remain near its peak brightness for many weeks. To find it, look southeast in early evening for the distinctive hourglass shape of the constellation Orion. Saturn is the brightest "star" in the region of sky off to Orion's left in the east. It's about the width of two wide-open hands (seen at arm's length) from the vertical row of three stars in Orion's Belt.
Even though Saturn is currently 750 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from Earth, its round disk and rings will be apparent when seen through even the smallest telescope. Saturn is tipped so that we are viewing its southern hemisphere, and a telescope with a diameter of at least 4 inches should reveal a black, razor-thin band (the Cassini Division) splitting the rings in two. You'll see more detail if you wait until late evening, when the planet is higher up in the sky.
Titan, with a diameter of 3,200 miles (5,150 km), is larger than either Mercury or Pluto. It circles Saturn every 16 days, traveling in an orbit about 760,000 miles (1.2 million km) from the planet. Titan looks like a a faint but distinct "star" hovering near Saturn, and on the night of January 14th it will be situated about two ring diameters away.
For a more complete guide to viewing Saturn, please link to Sky & Telescope's online guide to observing Saturn.
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