Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into three sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a small telescope. The best time to view the night sky is at and around the times when the Moon is not visible, what is known as a New Moon; which will occur this month on June 27th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 16th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm.
I began writing this monthly column in late 2007. For the last 6 to 7 years the planet Saturn was seldom featured because the ring positions were poorly aligned to the Earth. Beginning this year, Saturn’s rings have returned to their beauty. Saturn represents the best target for any amateur telescope, and therefore each year I will repeat a Saturn column during the best month of the year for viewing.
As I mentioned, the return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth marks the beginning of an excellent eight-year viewing period. A classic Saturn image is shown below.
Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive. I have viewed Saturn through many telescopes over many years. Throughout this time, I have always enjoyed watching someone looking through my telescope and seeing Saturn for the first time; it is always an amazing response.
At various times ScienceSouth has free public astronomy events using the ScienceSouth and Francis Marion’s Dobsonian reflectors. We give people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon and planets. Although these sights generated various amount of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, start viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky. Saturn will be in a good viewing position from mid-month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. However, if you have a good view of the western horizon, you can still view Saturn through August and before it sets in September.
To find Saturn this month, look to the south to see the pale yellow planet. As you may recall, most seasons of the year have a prominent easily identified constellation in the south. For summer, the constellation is Scorpius. This scorpion shaped, or “sloppy J,” stays close to the horizon throughout the summer. To find the planet Saturn this month, the head of the scorpion points directly to the planet. See chart below.
So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are tiny, but clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Below are three likely views of Saturn as seen through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Therefore, if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn; wow!
I have a special trick, which could help you when viewing Saturn. This simple trick is used for viewing the three brightest planets through a simple telescope; Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. When viewing bright planets through amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can produce a glare, which prevents a clear view of the planet. A simple way (‘trick”) to solve this problem is to view the planet before the sky becomes black, during twilight. Example: From mid-month on when you go out to view Saturn, begin viewing in the twilight, between 9 pm and 9:30. This simple method prevents the glare effect by eliminating the dark sky contrast; try it. Serious amateurs approach this glare problem with another approach. They observe the bright planet against a black sky, but they remove the glare by masking the telescope. A telescope mask is made of dark cardboard or metal, and has a hole cut into the mask to block most of the light. Some examples are shown below.
In general, masks are used on larger aperture telescopes, and are usually not used or needed on smaller 50 to 90 mm refractors. You can try masking your telescope easily and cheaply. Take a piece of dark cardboard, trace and cut out various size holes and then tape the cardboard over the front of your telescope. Aim at your favorite bright planet and see the effect. Note: The hole you cut out does not have to be a perfectly cut out circle. A somewhat sloppy circle will work as well.
So your experiment for this summer: On the same night try viewing the planet Saturn in the twilight, in a dark sky and with various size masks on your telescope.
Naked Eye Sights: The summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius and the summer Milky Way.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the southern sky in the regions of Scorpius and Sagittarius and up along the Milky Way.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The planet Saturn
See you next month!