Saturn: NASA's 'startling discovery' revealed
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Saturn at opposition only happens once a year, so dust off your telescopes and get ready for a spot of stargazing. The Ringed Giant is now lined up with the Sun and Earth, with our planet firmly in the middle. The opposition promises to provide clear views of the planet all through the night – provided you know where to look.
According to Tom Kerss, astronomer and host of the Star Signs: Go Stargazing! podcast, Saturn will be at its “brightest and at its best” tonight.
He said: “The reflection of sunlight off its icy rings almost directly back to us on Earth provides the so-called opposition surge, where they temporarily present and enhanced brightness generally outshining the orb of Saturn itself.
“Now this can be seen clearly, even with a small telescope.
“And if you’re lucky enough to have a larger telescope, your view will be very fine indeed.”
What is a planetary opposition?
As the Earth races around the solar system, it sometimes finds itself directly between the Sun and another planet.
So Saturn is at opposition today because, from our vantage point of Earth, it is directly across from us and the Sun.
According to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, some of the best times to see a planet is during an opposition.
The alignment of celestial bodies means the planets are bigger and brighter than normal – a perfect target to hone your stargazing skills.
How to see Saturn at opposition:
Saturn reached its brightest point early on Sunday, August 1, and will remain fairly easy to spot in the coming days.
Viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, Saturn will appear low in the sky.
South of the equator the planet will appear much higher above the horizon.
Mr Kerss said: “And from latitudes on the equator, Saturn is almost perfectly overhead. Very favourable indeed.”
If you don’t have a telescope at hand, a decent pair of binoculars should do the trick, though you might not see Saturn in its full glory.
Keep your eyes peeled low on the southeast horizon and you will see Saturn emerge around sunset.
As the night progresses, the Ringed Giant will stick to the southern skies, setting by dawn in the southwest.
To hone in on the planet’s exact location at night, you can use online resources like Stellarium.
The browser-based app will show you a projected image of the night sky from your location and you can use it to track a wide variety of other celestial bodies.
If you look to the left of Saturn, you will see the solar system’s biggest planet, Jupiter.
According to Mr Kerss, astronomy enthusiasts are in for a treat this month because Jupiter will reach its opposition on August 20 this year.
He said: “So even though Saturn is at its brightest now, it still can’t outshine Jupiter because it’s simply so much farther away from us.
“How far? Well, at its closest this week it’s about 1.34 billion km away.”
Saturn presently boasts an apparent magnitude (brightness) of +0.2, so it is just slightly fainter than the star Vega.
And though Saturn may look like a star to the unaided eye, there is one big giveaway – it doesn’t twinkle.
Mr Kerss added: “Planets aren’t infinitesimally small in the sky, even though they appear like stars to our eyes, so the images of planets passing through our atmosphere go relatively unperturbed and they stay steady in the sky.”
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