How To See the Planet Saturn

Upon seeing Saturn through a telescope, many first-time observers ask, “Is it real?”

Oh, it’s real alright.  And Saturn is primed for viewing over the next few months.  So whether you’re starting out in astronomy or you’re a wizened observer with decades of experience, here are a few pointers to help you get the best view of this exquisite planet.

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Viewing Tools and Techniques

First, before you get started, make sure your telescope is aligned and cooled down to ambient temperature.  And wait until Saturn is high as high in the sky as possible before you observe.  Right now, you should get a good view after 10 p.m. local time, and after 9 p.m. by mid May.

This image will help you find it near the star Spica in the constellation Virgo.  The planet is visible in both hemispheres.

Saturn, just above Spica in the eastern sky at seen April 4 at 11 p.m. local time, and April 18 at 10 p.m. local time (click to enlarge).

Once you get the planet in view, pop a low-power eyepiece in your scope.  At 25x, you’ll see Saturn as non-circular, and 50-60x should reveal the rings and the planet’s disk.

Don’t expect a Hubble-like image.  Despite its beauty, Saturn appears quite small in a telescope.  The disk is only 20″ across, about 1/3 the apparent size of Jupiter at its closest.  The rings extend farther… about 45-50″… which makes the planet appear larger.

Now move to at least 100x.  And keep going to higher magnification until the image gets too fuzzy or dim.  The optimum magnification depends on your telescope and seeing conditions.  In steady sky with a high-quality scope at 300-400x, the sight of Saturn is, in the words of one amateur astronomer, “pretty enough to make a grown man cry”.

And even nights when the air isn’t so steady, wait for moments of good seeing when the image will suddenly sharpen and jump out at you like a tiny hologram.  It’s darned impressive.

What To Look For

Saturn reveals much to a patient observer.

There are the rings, of course, with their complex structure and segmentation.  You’ll easily see the two main A and B rings, and in steady sky at 100x or more, you may see the large gap between the two main rings.  This is the Cassini division.

The architecture of Saturn’s rings

Can you discern the difference in brightness between the two rings?  Most observers agree the outer ‘A’ ring is fainter than the inner ‘B’ ring.  If you have rock-steady sky and a 6-inch scope, look for the elusive Encke division, another gap near the outer edge of the A-ring.

More than most planets, Saturn displays a striking 3-D effect caused by the darkened edges of the disk and, when you can see them, the shadows cast by the rings on the planet.  The rings are just 4 degrees from edge-on and don’t cast much of a shadow this year, so the view of Saturn isn’t quite as striking.  Still, you’ll find that Saturn presents a far more vivid image than Jupiter or Mars.

Like Jupiter, Saturn has a complex system of cloud bands visible with a small scope.  The image above shows how they’re labelled.  These pale whitish-yellow bands are by no means as obvious as Jupiter’s, but they are visible through most scopes.  A yellow filter may help bring them out a little.

And there are the moons of Saturn.

The brightest is Titan, which you can see with binoculars.  A 6-inch or larger scope may show the color of the dense yellow-orange clouds on this massive moon, the 2nd largest in the solar system.  The clouds hide the entire surface of Titan.  Which is too bad, because lakes of liquid hydrocarbons are spread across this planet-like world.

With a telescope of 4-inch aperture, and dark sky, you can also find the moons Iapentus, Rhea, Dione, and Tethys, all of which are approximately magnitude 10-11.  It’s hard to tell one from the another.  To sort them out, try this online tool at Sky and Telescope.

From Earth, the view of Saturn changes slowly as the big planet revolves around the sun every 30 years.  So most of us, with a little luck, will get to see Saturn’s full range of faces just once or twice in our adult lives.   That’s reason enough to turn off the TV tonight and go take a look for yourself.