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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 2:50 pm | Fair 63º


Dennis Mammana: Saturn — and Its Spectacular Rings — Spins Into View

Saturn Click to view larger
View the ringed planet at its finest after dark this week. (Dennis Mammana illustration / creators.com)

The man who flew a kite in a lightning storm so that we might one day have electricity, and penned such poignant words as “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” the great 18th-century political philosopher, statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, also had a profound interest in astronomy.

Not only was he the widely read author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, but he also philosophized about the possible existence of life elsewhere in the universe and even charted the path of the planet Mercury during one of its rare transits across the face of the sun.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Franklin even peered at the heavens with a telescope from the then-nonlight-polluted streets of Philadelphia from time to time, and perhaps even marveled at the glorious ringed planet Saturn. And I wonder if he ever shared that planetary view with any first-time telescope viewers.

This month you, too, can get a great view of Saturn. It appears now at its best, reaching its official opposition point on June 27. That means the ringed planet not only is at its nearest and brightest but also rises around sunset so that it remains visible to planet watchers all night long.

As the sky darkens this week, look for Saturn low in the southeastern sky. And on June 27, it will appear just to the right of the full moon, which, of course, is also at opposition.

Saturn will remain in our evening sky throughout the summer, but during the next month or so, expect it to offer a truly spectacular sight through a small telescope. If you’ve got one, this is definitely the time to aim it toward the ringed world. Not only is Saturn about as close to us as it can get (about 833 million miles), but its rings are also tipped beautifully in our direction.

If you’ve never viewed this planet for yourself, you have no idea what a spectacular view you’re missing. Even a small instrument with a magnifying power of only 30x or so will show its rings; of course, a larger telescope with a higher magnification will show the rings and the separations between them, known as the Cassini Division, and even some cloud bands in its atmosphere. In addition, Saturn’s largest and brightest moon, Titan, appears with even the smallest of instruments.

What intrigues me most about Saturn is how people react when seeing it for the first time through a telescope. I can always count on an initial gasp of amazement often followed by a joking accusation that I slipped in a photographic slide to trick them.

Maybe now you see my curiosity about whether Franklin ever shared his view of Saturn with any first-time telescope viewers. If he did, I’d wager that he heard people gasp even more excitedly than they do today.

And I suspect that, being the wise man that he was, Franklin might have written his now-famous quotation just a bit differently: “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and the reaction of stargazers to the amazing ringed planet.”

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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