by William J. Bechaver
It has been two weeks since we observed Saturn in its close pairing with the full Moon.
But perhaps this week offers us a better opportunity to view the great ringed planet. Now, with the Moon out of the night sky, our chance to see Saturn is improved without the interference of brilliant moonlight.
With Saturn just past opposition, we are still about as close to the ringed planet as we are going to get. Even so, with viewing opportunities at their most favorable, Saturn remains faint compared to much brighter Jupiter, even with the great ring system around the planet tilted toward us, posing a brighter target in the sky.
With the absence of the Moon, you can greater appreciate the beauty of the distant planet in the darkened sky.
Right now, Saturn lies in the constellation Sagittarius. The great constellation is not one of the most notable, nor the most recognizable. But Sagittarius holds a special place of prominence in our skies. It lies toward the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy. So, when you look at Saturn, and the stars of Sagittarius beyond, you are actually looking into the active center, the heart, of our home spiral galaxy.
Last month, I visited the southern hemisphere of our world for the first time. In the southern hemisphere it is the beginning of winter right now. But while in Chile, it was more difficult getting accustomed to the movement of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars than it was adjusting to the weather.
Chile is a popular location for astronomical observations. In fact, most of the largest and most modern observatories are, or are being constructed, in the high mountains of Chile.
There are several reasons for this scientific boom on the high peaks of the Andes mountain ranges. The air is clear and dry way up there, the skies dark beyond compare.
Also, and even more importantly, is Chile’s location in the southern hemisphere. Being in the south, the constellation Sagittarius is perpetually in the night sky. Here in the north, we can only see the constellation in the summer months, and low to the southern horizon. There it is high in the sky, all year round. Sagittarius lies toward the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. There, most of the stars and nebula of our galaxy can be seen. It is the active center of our home galaxy. With perpetual observation opportunities toward the center of the galaxy, Chile looks right into the heart of the galaxy, every night of the year.
This was my first venture to the southern hemisphere, and therefore, my first opportunity to view southern stars and southern constellations.
From Easter Island I first saw the beautiful Southern Cross, high in the sky, near the stars of Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, in the region of Proxima Centauri the stars a little over four light-years distant, the nearest stars to our own, and our nearest neighboring solar system.
In the early morning hours, I saw the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud, small irregular galaxies among some of the closest to our own. They were first charted by Magellan when he circumnavigated the globe.
Our normal constellations of Pegasus, Orion, and even the teapot asterism in Sagittarius were visible in the southern winter sky, but difficultly discernable. They are inverted in the northern part of the sky, basically upsidedown and oddly situated to the north. Not at all where we are used to seeing and identifying these common celestial star formations.
As the Sun oddly traverses the northern sky, from east to west, the south strangely feels like it is north, but then the Sun seems to be rising in the west and sinking in the east. Likewise, along with the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and all the planets traverse the sky in the north, a position directly opposed to everything in my astronomical experience. Everything in the sky, day and night, is strangely inverted in the southern hemisphere, and strange to get accustomed to in the brief time I was there.
As we looked at Saturn and Jupiter in the north, a position they should never hold, we gazed into the center of our galaxy almost directly overhead.
So, go out this week for an opportunity to view Saturn in a darkened sky. See if you can remember where it was when the Moon guided us to it a couple of weeks ago. If you spot brighter Jupiter, look further to the east for Saturn. It should lie almost due south at around midnight local time, with Jupiter off to the west.
In a couple of weeks, when the Moon comes around again, it will once again encounter Saturn, in an even closer, more spectacular pairing than last month. But with Saturn so distant, try to observe it with the absence of moonlight this week, and look beyond it, into the very heart of our home galaxy, The Milky Way.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.