Ask any astronomer, newbie or experienced, about what led them to take up astronomy in the first place and you’ll most likely hear them attribute it to the true Lord of the Rings—Saturn.
This celestial jewel is no doubt one of the most mind-blowingly gorgeous things to be able to see through a telescope, provided you know what you’re looking for and how to look for it.
If you’re looking for the “what” and “how”, we’re here to tell you everything about finding Saturn thru a telescope.
Ready? Let’s get started…
How To See Saturn Through A Telescope: Short Summary
Viewing Saturn through a telescope is quite simple.
The best way to go about it is to use a stargazing app to locate the planet and then view it through your telescope when the planet is at its closest to the Earth. Its rings and moons, and sometimes its surface, are the chief viewing points that astronomers seek out through their telescopes.
Remember, due to its rotation and revolution, Saturn’s position keeps changing in the night sky, so you’ll only be able to view it during some periods.
A Little Bit About Saturn
With a radius nearly nine times larger than the Earth’s, Saturn bags the position of being our solar system’s second-largest planet.
The gas giant, first viewed through a telescope by Galileo Galilei in the early 17th century, sits in the sixth position away from the Sun. Despite its size, it only has a density of 0.69 g/cm3, which means that it could quite easily float on a large-enough water body!
Despite Saturn’s distance from the Sun, its size means that you can enjoy great views of the planet from our home planet, especially its gorgeous rings, made up of dust, space debris, and particles of ice.
Another great feature to watch out for is the planet’s moons, with Titan claiming the position of the largest; it is also the solar system’s second-largest moon.
When Is Saturn Seen?
Due to its own rotation and revolution (29.5 years) around the Sun, Saturn’s position in the night sky keeps changing.
However, it is visible for most of the year, with views of the planet lost from the Earth only when it’s too near the Sun and too far away from the Earth for us earthlings to be able to see it. This generally occurs around January and February, with the planet visible for the rest of the year.
March to June mornings, the entire night in July and August, and September evenings are when Saturn can be easily viewed. The planet is at its zenith during October and as the year progresses, you can still see Saturn, but your views of it aren’t going to be very good.
This year, Saturn spends its time in the Capricornus constellation, where it will stay for around two and a half years before proceeding to occupy a spot in the next constellation.
The Best Time To View Saturn: What Is Opposition?
The best time to view Saturn in all its glory is when something known as “opposition” occurs. This is when Saturn is directly opposite the Sun when viewed from the Earth, which puts us exactly in between the two celestial bodies.
In opposition is when Saturn is closest to our planet (“perigee”), affording us gorgeous, clear views of the planet at its largest and brightest. The planet is also visible throughout the night during this period.
The perfect alignment of the Sun, the Earth, and Saturn lasts for around five hours before all the bodies start moving away from each other.
Opposition happens once every year, though it is rarely on the same date; due to the Earth’s orbit being faster than Saturn’s, there’s usually a two-week delay from the previous year’s date.
Steps To View Saturn Through A Telescope
Any telescope will do if you’re trying to get a view of Saturn, though for superior high-contrast views, a lens with a refractor possessing a longer focal length is necessary; reflectors don’t work as well because of the presence of a secondary mirror.
Newtonians and SCTs are popular choices among newbies, as these allow high-resolution images thanks to their higher apertures.
With that addressed, here are some tips to see Saturn well through a telescope.
Determining Saturn’s Presence
As mentioned earlier, Saturn isn’t always visible in the night sky. This year, especially, it may be hard to observe from the northern hemisphere as it is mostly present in daylight hours above the horizon, and in darkness, below.
The best way to figure out where you can spot Saturn in the velvety darkness of the night sky is to use an app or software. Stellarium is a great free option, whereas SkySafari 6 is worth every penny you pay.
Once you’ve determined when and where Saturn is visible, you can whip out that telescope!
Spotting With The Naked Eye
It isn’t very hard to spot Saturn even with the naked eye since it’s quite bright and big, without any flickering in its light, unlike stars. Saturn rounds off the list of deep space’s brightest objects, succeeding the Moon and the planets Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus.
Locate Saturn with just the naked eye by following your software/app/map’s direction. It should provide you with an angle to look at (with the horizon being 0 degrees and the sky right overhead being 90 degrees) in a particular direction.
You don’t even need to accurately pinpoint the coordinates—just look roughly at the right region, and if you’ve followed the directions properly, you’ll be treated with views of a pale yellow, brightly lit celestial body. Et voila, Saturn!
Time To Bring In The Telescope
Once you’ve roughly spotted Saturn with just your eyes, you can bring in your telescope to get a better look at the solar system’s most beautiful planet. Don’t zoom in right away; start with lower levels and work your way up so that your field of view increases and you can easily lock in on the planet.
The fact that you’re viewing Saturn can be confirmed by signs such as a solid, distinct shape (two protrusions on either side of a flat disc) and an unwavering, non-twinkling glow.
Zoom in sufficiently, and once you’re over the awe-inspiring majesty of the planet itself, you’ll realize that the protrusions from either side are nothing but Saturn’s lovely rings.
Viewing Saturn’s Various Features
As mentioned earlier, there are three main features that stargazers and astronomers seek out while viewing Saturn—the surface, the moons, and the rings. Here’s how to spot each of them through a telescope:
Viewing Surface Features
To view Saturn’s surface features, you’ll need a telescope more advanced than a small 2-inch backyard telescope.
You’ll need at least a 10-inch scope; with this, you can not only see the surface’s color nuances but even more advanced features such as the Cassini division.
Viewing Saturn’s Moons
Just as you can use apps and software to find Saturn’s position, you can also use them to find all the info you need to spot the planet’s moons.
The planet’s largest moon, and therefore the easiest to spot, is Titan. A 2-inch telescope will allow this; more advanced 10-inch telescopes may also let you spot a few of the others.
Viewing Saturn’s Rings
What many people hope to see when they’re looking at Saturn are the rings that run around the planet. Luckily for them, Saturn’s rings can be viewed with even a pair of basic 50-mm binoculars, let alone a telescope!
If you own a 2-inch telescope, you should be able to see the rings, though you’ll need at least 3 inches and an aperture speed of 50 to see clear distinctions between the planet and the rings. A 2-inch scope will only let you view the outline of Saturn and its rings.
Which Telescope Is The Best?
A basic 2-inch telescope is sufficient for most amateurs, but if you’re looking for better views, a larger lens diameter and a higher aperture speed will obviously provide better results.
With a 2-inch scope, you’ll only see Saturn as a blob of light and be able to make out its rings. With a 4-inch scope, you’ll be able to see the separation between the rings and the planets better and with the right viewing conditions in play (sufficient darkness and eyes sufficiently adapted to the darkness), you may even make out a few moons.
8-inch telescopes will permit the viewing of finer features, but for the best views, a 10-inch is your best bet—though this obviously isn’t going to come anywhere close to cheap.
Saturn is not only beautiful, but it’s also easy to spot through even the most basic telescope—so there are simply no excuses not to view this planet, especially when it’s looking its best in opposition.
Just ensure that you’re away from any light pollution and that your eyes are well adjusted, and most importantly, be patient and don’t expect NASA-quality views. Remember the magnitude of what you’re witnessing should you be able to catch views of Saturn, and you’ll definitely enjoy the experience.