Lured by the rings: See Saturn in opposition Saturday

Like a college student staying up all night to finish a paper, find Saturn from dusk until dawn entertaining sky gazers. It’s a special time for the ringed planet: Saturn reaches opposition on Saturday, May 10.

To enjoy this planet, simply step outside. When night’s curtain drapes heaven, turn to the east-southeastern sky, where Saturn ascends the treetops. The planet begins to rise at about 8 p.m. now, and it will take about a half-hour to an hour for viewers to see it well. This large, gaseous planet passes south at about 1 a.m. Eastern time.

Even from the light-polluted Washington area, you should easily spot Saturn at zero magnitude. By 10 p.m., the planet should be above trees in the southeast, loitering in the constellation Libra.

The astronomical term “opposition” is not scary. It means that the planet (in this case Saturn) is opposite the sun from Earth’s perspective.  In other words, our little blue planet slides between Saturn and the sun. As the ringed planet rises in the east, the sun sets in the west.

If it turns out cloudy Saturday evening, night after night, you can enjoy Saturn. By the evening of May 13, the nearly full moon approaches Saturn. On the next night, May 14, the big fat full moon is just south of Saturn.

In this image representing Saturn's true colors, the planet’s north polar hexagon pops prominently. Val Klavans developed this composite from Cassini mission raw images taken on May 4, 2014. “The raw images are uncalibrated, untouched, monochrome images taken through different filters,” she said. “I aligned, combined and color corrected them to reproduce a view the human eye would see. It took me between one to two hours to process (them) into the final composite image.” (NASA / JPL / SSI / Val Klavans)

In this image representing Saturn’s true colors, the planet’s north polar hexagon pops prominently. Val Klavans developed this composite from Cassini mission raw images taken on May 4, 2014. “The raw images are uncalibrated, untouched, monochrome images taken through different filters,” she said. “I aligned, combined and color corrected them to reproduce a view the human eye would see. It took me between one to two hours to process (them) into the final composite image.” (NASA / JPL / SSI / Val Klavans)

Geoff Chester, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, writes on the planet’s magnificence on the observatory’s web feature The Sky This Week: “The details on Saturn’s globe are quite subtle, but the overall appearance of the planet is anything but.  This planet is probably the most unusual sight a novice can see through a telescope, and the first view that someone has of Saturn spinning inside its rings invariably brings reactions of incredulity,” he said.

Reddish Mars – which passed through opposition about a month ago – runs ahead of Saturn. You’ll spot Mars high in the southern sky, to the left of the plump waxing moon (May 10). The moon has passed Mars by the following night (May 11).  Find Mars in the Virgo constellation.

The Ring Cycle

In August 2009, Saturn’s rings were edge-on from Earth’s perspective.  In the intervening time, the rings have appeared to open up, as we bask in the northern ring plane surface glory, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

While Earth takes 365 days to orbit the sun, Saturn lumbers along in 29.5 year orbit. As its rings are fixed and the planet is tilted, Earth sees different perspectives of the rings over this period. Every 14.7 years Earthlings view either the northern or southern face; and when our blue planet crosses the ring plane, the rings are called “edge-on.” The rings will appear to open up for the next few years.

See Saturn with Slooh.com

Live from the Canary Islands off of Africa’s western coast, Slooh.com will webcast a live image stream of Saturn’s opposition. Featuring Slooh host Geoff Fox and astronomer Bob Berman, the web site’s action starts at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday, May 10. Viewers can ask questions during the show by using hashtag #Slooh.

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