By Adam England
When I was a kid growing up in Prescott Valley, I loved to sleep on the trampoline on clear nights. From the comfort of my sleeping bag I would see the planets and constellations move across their celestial highway called the ecliptic; I would watch satellites – and in time the International Space Station – zoom in various directions as they orbited high above; and I would wake my mom at crazy hours to make her come watch the occasional meteor shower with me. The moment that really hooked me into astronomy though was when I first looked through a telescope with my own eyes and saw the rings of Saturn. Of course, I had seen a plethora of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope or from the flybys of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft from the late 70s through the late 80s, but to actually look through a cheap backyard telescope and be able to discern not just a distant planet but also its magnificent ring system reflecting the light of the sun, that was an awakening moment for this little boy that changed his life forever.
Saturn in natural color. Image courtesy of NASA, Cassini spacecraft, July 2008.
Being the second largest planet, Saturn was well known to ancient cultures. Babylonian, Hindu, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Roman, Chinese, and Arabic astronomers all recorded Saturn’s movement across the sky and included it as a major character in their respective mythologies. Hindu astrology named it Shani – the judge of all deeds performed in one’s life. To this day, in the Greek language Saturn is known as “Kronos”, the leader of the Titans. Around 150 AD, the Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy modeled a geocentric solar system with the Earth at the center of it all. He studied Saturn in opposition – meaning when it was both at its closest to Earth and most illuminated by the Sun as viewed from Earth. Using this (incorrect) model, he devised the most accurate calculations of Saturn’s movements for over a millennium.
Fast forward 1460 years to Galileo Galilei. His 1610 AD observations of Saturn through his earliest telescopes resolved something on either side of the planet, which he took to be large moons. When he looked at Saturn later, the rings were angled almost perfectly flat as seen from earth and his two “moons” disappeared, then reappeared again in 1616, with his progression of sketches showing both his improvement in telescope technology and his increased understanding of the Saturnian system.
Galileo sketches of Saturn. Courtesy of AstroBob.com.
We can now observe Saturn with inexpensive backyard telescopes and see the rings shine brightly back at us here on Earth, some 837 million miles distant, when it is again in opposition on July 9th. The rings average nearly 70,000 miles wide but only 66 feet thick, by comparison that is wide enough to fit 9 Earths but only as tall as a bowling lane is long. They are composed of mostly dust and small rocks up to the size of a car, but the reason we can see them so well from Earth is that those rocks and dust particles are covered in water ice. Acting like a prism, they diffuse and reflect the sun’s distant light back to our eyes on Earth and give us an amazing show night after night, for millions of years to come.
Saturn as viewed from Prescott Valley. Image courtesy of Joel Cohen, May 30, 2016 taken with Astro-Physics 7″ f/9 Refractor with an AP 2x Barlow. The camera was a MallinCam SLP Color Camera.
If you would like to learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit our website atwww.prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook page @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.
Adam England is a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or on Facebook @AEnglandLM
Adam M. England
Your Personal Insurance Consultant
141 S. McCormick Street, Suite 215, Prescott, AZ 86303
Office: 928-227-9010 Cell Phone: 928-642-0073 EFax: 603-334-8054