​EXPLORING SATURN CLOSE UP

 by William J. Bechaver

It’s been a couple of months since we last explored Saturn close up, and now it shines more prominently in the night sky, being at opposition, and closer to Earth than it will be all year.

Opposition is the position when it is directly opposite the Sun in the sky, or on the same side of the Sun as we, and therefore at the closest position.

Also, with opposition coming just days before the Summer Solstice, Saturn will be lower in the south, as it remains in the sky the entire night. 

With the Sun at its highest position in the sky during summer, the northern hemisphere tilted toward the Sun, it only results in the passage of the full moon, and the paths of the planets at night, being lower in the sky.

This year, with Saturn’s Opposition, the Full Moon, and the Summer Solstice all coming within the span of a few days, Saturn will be low in the sky, and visible the entire night, when it encounters the full moon on the night of Friday 9 June. They will both rise together in the east at sundown, and travel low across the southern sky all night long.

The pair will rise about 9:00 o’clock, the Moon making an appearance first, with Saturn lower and a bit to the right. Only two degrees will separate the two at their rising. 

Then as the evening progresses, the space will grow, and the two will change position, with Saturn leading the way across the sky, and their distance doubling to about four degrees before they set together in the west on the morning of the tenth.

So, get out any time Friday night, or before dawn Saturday morning, and view the pair, as the full Moon crosses the southern sky accompanied by ringed Saturn.

The Cassini mission surrounding Saturn is entering its final phases. The probe, orbiting the planet for nearly fifteen years now, has actually made seven passes between the planet and the magnificent ring system. With each close orbit, it gathers data, and sends it back to us on Earth at the speed of light. 

Yet, it takes that data seventy five minutes to reach Earth at Saturn’s closest distance. 

The Cassini mission only has three more months before it notedly comes to a final conclusion, as the spacecraft will enter Saturn’s atmosphere, and exist no longer. 

So we’ll keep an eye on the exploration, and delve further into some of Cassini’s greatest discoveries as this monumental mission comes to a close.

As you locate Saturn on Friday night, very near the Moon, ponder the great mission of exploration taking place there, and all we’ve learned about our most spectacular neighbor, and all that we still have to discover there.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.