On a whim late last night, around 1am or so, I booted up my planetarium software and looked around to see what stars were up. At that time, I noticed that Mars and Saturn were up, so I figured I’d go take a look.
Both planets were easily visible to the naked eye. Mars, true to its moniker as the Red Planet, was indeed a reddish-orange color high overhead. Saturn was a yellow or beige color, and sat near the horizon. I’d never seen Saturn through a telescope, and I’ve heard it’s really neat, so I grabbed my scope and set it up.
I didn’t expect much. On very clear nights, I can see Jupiter fairly well, with one or two color bands being visible from my house on the clearest nights. Last night wasn’t so clear – in fact Jupiter’s colors failed me completely earlier in the evening – so I wasn’t terribly optimistic as to what I’d see. Glad I looked anyway.
With my highest-magnification eyepiece Saturn was very small, and it had an oblong shape to it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing. Resolution for objects near the horizon is worse than for objects high overhead because there’s so much more atmosphere for the light to go through and it gets scattered away. Objects will appear to dance around, blur randomly, shimmer, and otherwise be difficult to see. In order to get anything out of these viewing conditions, you just have to be patient and wait for clear moments to come.
And clear moments did indeed come. After a few moments of waiting (while my eyes adjusted to the dark), I caught several clear glimpses of the planet’s main body and what were obviously its rings circled around it at an angle. This was the source of the oblong shape.
All I can think to say is Wow. I had thought that the novelty of seeing things through a telescope had worn off, but I felt awed – not only by the sight on the planet and its rings, but also by the realization that, despite the extreme between that world and ours, we – simple human beings – built, launched, and inserted into Saturnian orbit an entire observatory – the Cassini spacecraft – just to see better pictures.
It’s more than that, though. We have an insatiable desire to see our universe, but even more undying is our need to understand it – and science is the vehicle by which we will arrive at that understanding.
- Saturn’s rings cast long shadows (blogs.discovermagazine.com)