Saturn Opposition: How to See Saturn While It's Shining Brightest

Saturn will be at its brightest over July, August and September this year. Here is how to find it in the night sky.
Chris Young

Throughout July, Saturn will shine especially bright making it an ideal time to view the gas giant in the sky through a telescope, or even binoculars.

On July 9, Saturn was in direct opposition, meaning it was the closest distance it gets to Earth in more than a year — it happens roughly every 378 days.


A Saturn viewing guide

In order to get a good view of Saturn this month, you will need a telescope that magnifies to at least 20 power. Thankfully, you still have plenty of time left to do this as Saturn's opposition isn't a one-night-only spectacle.

Due to its proximity, the huge planet will be impressively bright in the night sky throughout the months of July, August, and September of this year. 

Having been at opposition means that the gas giant is currently at its greatest size in the sky all year. It is shining at a magnitude of +0.1. Compared with the 21 brightest stars, the planet would rank seventh.

Saturn Opposition: How to See Saturn While It's Shining Brightest
Saturn is the sixth farthest planet from the Sun. Source: WikiImages/Pixabay

To find Saturn, you will need to look for the planet as it rises above the east-southeast horizon as the sun sets in the west-northwest. It will be shining in front of the Sagittarius constellation, to the east of the Teapot asterism.

At roughly 1 a.m. local time, the planet should appear due south, about a third of the way up from the horizon. By dawn, Saturn will be setting in the west-southwest.

Saturn's spectral rings

Saturn has long inspired stargazers — professional and amateur alike — due to the splendor of its rings. The gas giant's main rings span 300,000 kilometers in width and can have a thickness of anywhere between 10 meters and 1 kilometer.

Thanks to the Cassini spacecraft mission — which ended when it went hurtling into Saturn's orbit in 2017 — we have some incredible images of the rings up close.

Saturn Opposition: How to See Saturn While It's Shining Brightest
Translucent Arcs. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Universe Today reports, even those without telescopes can catch an impressive sight thanks to Saturn being at opposition. With the naked eye, viewers can watch the 'opposition surge,' or the Seeliger effect. This is a surge in Saturn's brightness in the night sky caused by the Sun reflecting off the planet, and its rings, at the opposition angle.

How to make a positive ID

As Space outlines, there are two surefire ways to make a positive identification of Saturn as it floats through the sky at night. 

The first way is to find Jupiter. It shines very brightly in the southern night sky, meaning you can't miss it. Once you have found it, clench your fist and hold it out at arm's length. By measuring three fists to the left of Jupiter in the night sky, you will see the are of Saturn's location — the gas giant will be the brightest starlike object in that vicinity.

Meanwhile, on July 15, Saturn will be close to the nearly full moon throughout the night, meaning that the planet will be much easier to track and find.

Saturn Opposition: How to See Saturn While It's Shining Brightest
Saturn pairs up with the Moon on July 15. Source: 

Saturn: Earth's protector

Last month, it was reported that a machine learning AI bot is being used by researchers to help find exoplanets that are similar in size to Saturn and Jupiter.

Scientists believe that Jupiter and Saturn have protected our planet from asteroids and space debris throughout the history of our solar system. So Saturn could, in fact, be responsible for our very existence on Earth. 

The large size of Saturn and Jupiter means that, over billions of years, large chunks of space debris floating into the Milky Way galaxy would be attracted by their strong gravities.

Effectively, Saturn and Jupiter acted like shields for Earth, preventing large asteroids from hurtling towards our planet.

Saturn Opposition: How to See Saturn While It's Shining Brightest
Image of Saturn taken by Cassini. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This means that if we find other planets in the universe that resemble Jupiter and Saturn, they could be neighbors to nearby planets — similar to our own — that could be harboring intelligent life.

So if you have a telescope, now is the time to get on your roof, or to the nearest park at nighttime. There is no better time this year than the next 2-3 months to view Saturn — perhaps while pondering the very existence that the spectral giant makes possible.

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