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What Does Saturn Look Like in the Night Sky?

by Serm Murmson, studioD

The planet Saturn is known for its distinct rings. When it is visible in the night sky, however, Saturn looks like a bright star. If you have a telescope, you will be able to see Saturn in greater detail. As the power of your telescope increases, you may be able to see Saturn's rings, moons and color bands.

Magnitude Range

Magnitude is the measure of an object's brightness in the night sky. Bright objects have low magnitudes. Because the planets reflect the sun's light, their magnitude will vary. Saturn has a maximum magnitude around -0.3. When this is the case, it is still fainter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. But Saturn typically has a magnitude closer to 1, which makes it brighter than the stars of the Big Dipper but fainter than the star Vega. By contrast, both Mars and Jupiter have brighter maximum magnitudes, at -2.0 and -2.7, respectively.

Traveling the Ecliptic

The ecliptic is the plane of the solar system. Like the other planets of the solar system, Saturn travels the sky near the ecliptic (see References 3). The zodiac constellations all lie on the ecliptic. Therefore, you will always see Saturn in a zodiac constellation. The exact position of Saturn in the sky depends on its orbital position. You can't see Saturn every night of the year, as sometimes it is below the horizon at night.

Ring Around the Planet

Saturn is perhaps best-known for its massive rings. You will not be able to see these rings with the naked eye. If you use a small telescope with at least 25x magnifying power, however, you should be able to see the rings. At first, they may look like small blurry ears around the planet. As you increase the telescope size, you will be able to see the rings with increasing definition.

Reach for the Moons

Saturn has more than 60 moons. If you have a 2-inch telescope, you should be able to see Saturn's biggest and brightest moon, Titan. The moons will appear as small dots around Saturn. As the strength of your telescope increases, you will be able to see an increasing number of Saturn's moons.

True Colors

Saturn is a gas giant planet. To see the contrast between bands of gas on Saturn, you must have a fairly high-powered telescope. In fact, even at high powers, this contrast will only show faint traces of color. Without a filter, Saturn appears in a pale, yellowish brown color. If you have color filters, you can use them to display more contrast and subtle color changes.

About the Author

Serm Murmson is a writer, thinker, musician and many other things. He has a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. His concerns include such things as categories, language, descriptions, representation, criticism and labor. He has been writing professionally since 2008.

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