Summer Spotlight: Saturn

SATURN, the second largest planet in the Solar System, is in excellent view in the night sky through the end of July. In fact, it will be the only planet visible in the sky on most evenings this summer. Although it is not as bright as Jupiter or Venus, it is still easy to find. Look to the south as soon as it gets dark, and you should see two bright objects about a third of the way up from the horizon. The one on the right is the bright star SPICA, and the one on the left is Saturn (for example, see Skywatching: June 18).

Saturn has always been my favorite planet. As a young boy, I was captivated by the beauty of the rings. Unfortunately, we cannot see them with the naked eye, so one of the first things I looked at when I got my first telescope was Saturn–so I could see its rings. In the 1980’s, we sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to Saturn. Pictures from these spacecraft were the first close-up views of Saturn and its moons that I remember.

Currently, the spacecraft Cassini is orbiting the planet; its mission has been wildly successful. We have learned a lot more about Saturn’s atmosphere and its fascinating moons, including Titan (the only moon in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere) and Enceladus (a moon with erupting geysers and possibly a liquid water ocean beneath its crust). The image featured in this post was taken by Cassini (Source: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

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