The Return of Saturn (and a SKYWATCH ALERT)
Most of us would agree that Saturn is the jewel of our solar system. It's fairly bright in the sky and easy to pick out if you know where to look. With it's beautiful and complex ring system and over 60 moons, it's a world ripe for exploration. If you have a modest telescope, you can make out the rings from your own backyard. Seeing them in photos is beautiful, but seeing them with my own eyes was amazing. Saturn has been on the other side of the sun from us so it hasn't been visible for a while, but it's back! It's low in the east just before sunrise and will be climbing higher and higher in the morning sky over time. I'm very excited about imaging Saturn over the coming months. There's more atmosphere in the way when imaging objects close to the horizon, so the images should get better from here. As you can see in the image above, the rings are tilted towards us, so I hope to get some good images of them also. **Geek Out!**
If you've got a good view of the horizon, you may be able to catch Jupiter setting in the west while Saturn is rising in the east.
(Speaking of Jupiter, I got a great photo of it the other day. Check out that beautiful Great Red Spot!)
Back to Saturn.
Saturn is a gas giant, made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. It's huge. If Earth were the size of a nickel, Saturn would be about the size of a basketball*. Saturn orbits the sun from about 1.4 billion km away. That's over nine times the distance of Earth's orbit, so it's cold out there. Saturn itself isn't a place we would expect to find life as we know it, but some of it's moons have conditions that scientist believe could support life.
Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is covered with a thick nitrogen-rich atmosphere similar to what scientist think Earth's atmosphere was like before life developed here. It has clouds, rain, rivers, and lakes. Because Titan is out in the cold of deep space, water freezes as hard as rock and methane, which is a gas on Earth, is the liquid that makes up those clouds, lakes, and rivers. It's not impossible that some form of life could develop in those conditions. I'm really curious to know what's going on under those lakes.
Enceladus is even more intriguing. This moon is a ball of water ice with a liquid ocean under the frozen surface. Enceladus orbits Saturn in an elliptical orbit, so it gets closer and father away at different points. This results in a tidal effect, as Saturn's gravity pulls on the moon, squishing and smashing and creating heat. On Earth, water plus energy equals life, so Enceladus is a prime target for exploration. The Cassini spacecraft discovered that Enceladus has geysers spraying some of that internal water into space, like an ice volcano. It would be interesting to send a spacecraft to sample some of that water.
On Friday, Feb 20, the very young Waxing Crescent Moon, Venus, and Mars will be close together in the west as the sun sets. Watch the sunset on Thursday and see if you can pick out Venus and Mars as the sky gets darker.
Works on this page credited to Adam Brown are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.