Observing Saturn through even a small telescope is amazing. The rings are so obvious and clear that sometimes, when I would show people the planet through my own 'scope, they thought I was faking the view! But it really is that easy to see them.
Well, usually. Saturn, like the Earth, is tilted. That is, if you imagine Saturn orbiting the Sun, the north pole doesn't point straight up, perpendicular to the orbit. Instead it's tilted by about 27° (Earth is tilted by about 23° for comparison). What that means is that as Saturn circles the Sun we get a different viewing angle on the rings; sometimes we look down on them, sometimes up at them, and sometimes they are perfectly edge on.
"Amateur" astronomer Alan Friedman -- who has taken some incredible pictures of the Sun that have graced this blog -- took a series of images of Saturn over several years, and put them together in a very cool animation that shows our changing view of the ringed planet:
Pretty nifty [click to encronosenate]! The images come from observations Alan made over the course of 2004 to fall 2009, when the orbits of Saturn and Earth lined up to bring us through the ring plane. Saturn's rings are incredibly thin, so they appear as an almost invisible line. Here are the individual images from the animation arranged in a montage:
[Again, click to embiggen.] You can really see some great details, including banding of the clouds on the planet, and the Cassini Division in the rings, a gap carved out by gravitational interactions with Saturn's Death Star moon Mimas.
Right now, as the dance of the planets continues, Saturn is getting closer to the Sun in the sky, making it difficult to observe. In a few months though it'll reappear on the other side of the Sun, rising in the early morning. But that's OK, because in the meantime Jupiter is positioning itself in the east shortly after sunset, and is up all night for your perusal. Even a pair of binoculars will reveal moons and stripes of clouds on its surface. And while it takes patience to get a series of images of Saturn like Alan's above, the moons of Jupiter can be seen to move in just a few hours. If you have clear skies, go take a look! There's always something to see.
Image credit: Alan Friedman, used by permission.
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