Plan­ets on dis­play

Saturn is best placed this month, while Venus reaches its brightest at mag­ni­tude -4.6

All About Space - - Contents -

Even though it is quite faint and never gets very high in the sky, Saturn is still the planet best placed for ob­ser­va­tion this month. At mag­ni­tude 0.4 it is an easy naked-eye ob­ject, brighter than most of the stars in the sky, but its low al­ti­tude means it will ap­pear fainter than that fig­ure sug­gests. The planet is also em­bed­ded in the frothy star clouds of the Milky Way’s al­most-cen­tral re­gion, so there is less con­trast be­tween it and the sky be­hind it, fur­ther re­duc­ing its im­me­di­ate vis­ual im­pact.

Saturn is still lovely to look at this month and is vis­i­ble from sunset through to the late evening hours. To the naked eye it will look like a gold-hued star low in the south­ern sky dur­ing twi­light, shin­ing just above and to the right of the fa­mous ‘Teapot’ as­ter­ism formed by Sagittarius’ brightest stars. Binoc­u­lars will en­hance its sub­tle warm colour, and if you have a small tele­scope you’ll be able to see the planet’s fa­mous ring sys­tem wide open too, look­ing like a huge hula hoop thrown over the planet. The larger the tele­scope you look through, the more de­tail you will see within the rings; with enough mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and a large enough aper­ture you will be able to see sev­eral dark gaps in the bright rings, and many of the planet’s ex­tended fam­ily of moons too. With a large tele­scope you will also be able to see some fea­tures on the planet it­self, such as its dark pole, cloud bands on its disc and even the ink-black shadow of the rings cast on its disc.

A pair of binoc­u­lars or a tele­scope will also show you some in­ter­est­ing and well-known deep-sky ob­jects close to Saturn. This month Saturn is never far­ther than two de­grees – just four Moon widths – away from M8, the La­goon Ne­bula, a huge cloud of glow­ing gas di­vided by a strik­ing dark dust lane. This is a re­gion in space where stars are be­ing born, and you will see it as a small misty patch to the lower right of Saturn. Just above M8 is M20, an­other star­form­ing re­gion known as the ‘Tri­fid Ne­bula’ be­cause it is split into three dis­tinct ar­eas by its dust lanes. M20 is smaller and less ob­vi­ous to the eye than M8, which is hardly sur­pris­ing see­ing as it is more than a thou­sand light years fur­ther away from us. Saturn will form an at­trac­tive tri­an­gle with both of th­ese neb­u­lae through­out the month.

This month Saturn will also have a very at­trac­tive close en­counter with the Moon. On the evening of 17 Septem­ber the two worlds will be just two de­grees apart, with the wax­ing gib­bous Moon shin­ing to the up­per left of Saturn, mak­ing a very at­trac­tive pair­ing low in the south­ern sky.

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