Archive for January, 2009

Saturn Goes Commando

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

     The jewel of the solar system, Saturn, is going naked from our viewpoint for a while.  If you have a telescope, watch the ring plane disappear and reappear over the next few months.  The actual disappearance will be in September, but will be unobservable.  Saturn will be on the opposite side of the sun from us. 

     Saturn has a tilt of approximately 26.7 degrees, the Earth has a 23.5 degree tilt.  That means every so often our viewpoint crosses the ring plane and the rings disappear.  The rings are incredibly thin, a few yards at most, yet the full diameter of the rings is over 124,000 miles.  That ratio means that the rings would be far sharper than a razor in relation to its diameter.  Here’s a classic view of Saturn’s rings from www.spacetelescope.org.

Classic view of Saturn

Classic view of Saturn

     But this how Saturn looks now.  Seems almost naked without the rings.

Saturn Almost Naked

Saturn Almost Naked

     By the way, that’s Titan just above the rings to the left in the picture and that’s Titans shadow on the southern part of Saturn (image from the Hubble Space Telescope).  Titan is the only moon in the solar system that has an atmosphere, which is why it looks fuzzy.  Soon there will no rings to see at all, but in a few months beginning after September, they’ll start to reappear.
     By the way, Titan gives us another great reference to the size of Earth.  Titan is about 40 percent the diameter of Earth.  So picture that fuzzy orange dot a little over double the size and that gives you what Earth would look like in orbit around Saturn.  Saturn is the 2nd largest planet, behind Jupiter, in our solar system.
     bob