All About Space

Month’s planets

Track down the ringed giant in the evening sky throughout the warmer months – you’ll be glad that you did


Saturn is our Planet of the Month this issue, not because it’s particular­ly bright or well-placed, but because it’s in danger of being overlooked otherwise. The Ringed Planet will be visible in the southern part of the sky all through the long, light summer nights, but with much brighter and more obvious Jupiter as a close neighbour, Saturn risks being overshadow­ed. But even though it will be low in the sky this month, and less obvious than other planets, Saturn will still be an attractive target for summer stargazers.

At the start of our observing period Saturn will be rising before the Sun has even set, so it will be visible all through the night. As it is carried slowly from east to west by the Earth’s rotation the planet will remain low in the sky, tracing out a low arc across it.

At its highest it will only be 15 degrees or so above the horizon, which means you might struggle to see it if there are any hills, buildings or trees in that part of the sky at your observing site. But if you can see it, Saturn will look like a pale, golden-hued star less than 20 degrees to the right of much brighter, much bluer Jupiter.

Saturn is famous for its rings. Unfortunat­ely they’re not visible to the naked eye, and can’t be seen through most binoculars, so if you want to see them you’ll need a telescope. Made of countless chunks of ice, the rings have fascinated and entranced us ever since they were discovered more than four centuries ago by the first users of telescopes. Since then they have been photograph­ed by larger and rather more sophistica­ted telescopes, both on the ground and in space, and by robotic space probes that have swept past or gone into orbit around the planet.

The photos these instrument­s have taken show breathtaki­ng detail in Saturn’s glittering hoops – thousands of rings packed together tightly. If you have a telescope of your own, you won’t see that detail, but you will see the brightest, main rings. In fact, the brightness of the summer sky might help make the rings easier to see through your telescope because there will be less contrast between them and the sky.

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