Saturn in opposition to the sun

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

OK space fans, a couple of things this week. First, our favorite planet, Saturn, will be at opposition on Sunday, April 28. Opposition means "opposite" the sun in the sky.

That is just a big word that means the ringed-planet is on the opposite side of Earth from the sun. If you will think of is as Earth being in the middle with the sun on one side and Saturn on the other.

And that is a good thing because it means Saturn will rise at sunset and set at sunrise thus being up -- and available for observation -- all night.

At present Saturn rises at about 8:30 p.m. MDT, and will be in good viewing position by 9 p.m. It is just below and left of bright Spica in Virgo, the Maiden and an almost-full moon.

The absolute best way to view Saturn is through a telescope. Even a small telescope will reveal the magnificent rings, and at present we are viewing the northern hemisphere and the rings have widened enough to give a great view.

If viewing conditions are good, Saturn's largest moon, Titan, should be visible to the upper right as a small, bright dot.

Item number two is the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. We have visited Auriga before, but it never hurts to go back for another look.

To find it, start by looking due west about an hour after local sunset any night this week or next. First find very bright Jupiter located between the horns of Taurus, the Bull.

From there travel up and slightly right in the 1 o'clock direction to find a large, odd-shaped loop of stars with a bright star on the upper side, that is Auriga, and the bright star is Capella.

I am not sure how the ancients got the idea of a charioteer from this group of stars, but I am willing to take their word for it.

There are three very nice open star clusters located here, which make very easy binocular targets.

The first, M38, is located in the lower, central part of the constellation. If you are at a place with a very dark sky you should be able to see it with just your eyes alone. In fact, all three of these objects can be seen by just looking.

Now, if you put M38 slightly off center to the right in your field of view you will be able to see your next target, M36, which is also an open star cluster slightly smaller than M38; and if you place M36 at the 3:00 position the next target, M37, can be seen at about the 10:00 position.

This is why I enjoy viewing these objects, they are easy to find and make for some nice viewing.

Now, how about a challenge. The average binocular field of view is between five to six degrees wide. Start by placing your last object viewed, M37, at the extreme 3:00 position just at the edge of visibility and move the view to the left about a field and a half width.

There you should find another nice open cluster of stars, M35.

There now, not a bad piece of work for one evening, one constellation and four Messier objects. I hope you are keeping a log of the Messier objects and constellations you view on our trips around the sky.

It is always nice to go back and look over where you have been and what you have accomplished.

SKY WATCH: Full moon Thursday night, April 25. The planet Saturn is just to the upper left of the moon.

NEXT WEEK: More astronomical blathering.

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