Enhanced image of Saturn eclipsing the Sun taken in 2006 by the robotic Cassini spacecraft. Courtesy NASA/JPL.
There’s something special about seeing Saturn in a telescope. Sure, viewing any of the planets is pretty great – the telescope reveals an object that to our eyes appears to be a star is actually a disc, a whole ‘nother world. It’s enough to get any observer’s heart pumping.
But then there’s Saturn – it’s not just a disc. Currently when viewed at very low powers the rings form much of the visual bulk of the planet, giving it an oval appearance with a hint of dark separation between the planet and its rings. What a surreal viewing experience to see this strange, wonderful object hanging in space.
With Saturn rising shortly after 7:00 PM and setting around 5:00 AM, now is a good time to view the planet, which is a showpiece in even small telescopes. For the best view, try to catch the planet as high in the sky as you can – currently it reaches maximum altitude around midnight. At my 40°N latitude the planet only gets up to ~30° so the atmosphere can make high power viewing difficult but still worthwhile. I was able to take advantage of a recent clear night to view Saturn with both a 60mm refractor and the Celestron FirstScope.
I haven’t looked through a telescope in weeks. The second half of April seemed an endless string of cloudy nights and while I’m sure there were a few clear ones in there, one thing or another kept me from getting out under the stars with a telescope.
I am starting to miss observing and I can’t help but recall one of the last sessions of April, which happened to give the best views of Jupiter I’ve yet seen.
I was enjoying a pleasant evening out in the back yard with the kids when I first noticed Venus visible in the southwest and shortly after that was able to spot Jupiter, with some difficulty as the sky was still blue, near the zenith so I decided to bring out the 10″ Dob. Only a few weeks earlier I would’ve chosen a smaller scope but due to the mild weather that day I suspected the telescope would not need much, if any, cooling before being usable at high powers.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ganymede was currently in the middle of a transit. Even better, the Great Red Spot was just appearing on the Eastern limb. I grabbed my smallest aperture telescope that takes interchangeable eyepieces, a 60mm refractor, and headed outside.
Conjunction of the crescent Moon, Venus (center left) and Mars (upper left) on the evening of February 20, 2015. Photo by David Philips.
I always enjoy trying to spot the waxing crescent moon as I leave work. It’s position can vary a bit depending on my schedule and the exact timing of the Lunar phase but I usually can catch it high enough in the South Western sky while I walk to my car and steal an occasional glimpse on the drive home.
Tonight I was greeted by an especially striking scene as both Venus and Mars shone close by and the full Lunar disc was visible in the Earthshine. By the time I arrived home the Moon was much lower in the sky but I was able to catch a photo of the conjunction.
Considering the past several weeks have been full of snow, clouds, and more snow, I’m thankful to have caught this conjunction and the clear but cold night is a welcome change. Keep looking up; you may see something beautiful!
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This month offers prime viewing for one of the most interesting objects in our Solar System as Jupiter is now well positioned for observation from twilight to dawn.
Jupiter is easily visible to the naked eye as the brightest star-like object in the sky. Currently it is found in Cancer, which can be a difficult constellation to locate in my suburban sky – look for it between Gemini and Leo.
Annotated picture of Jupiter taken by the Cassini spacecraft on December 29, 2000 (Credit NASA/JPL for original picture).
The planet offers a host of features for users of small telescopes. At powers around 10x the four Galilean moons can be seen nicely aligned with the planet. Increase the magnification to 40x and the main equatorial belts stand out clearly. Going to 100x and higher reveals more belts and zones.
For many observers of Jupiter the Great Red Spot (GRS), an enormous storm that has raged for hundreds of years, is a sought after highlight. Magnifications of around 130x are a good starting point for your first views of the GRS.