The best time to see the planet Saturn in 2013 is now! Saturn will be out nearly all night for most of May. Why is Saturn so good to view this month? The reason is that we passed between Saturn and the sun in late April. At that time, Saturn was opposite the sun as seen from Earth. Now Earth has moved on slightly in its orbit, so that Saturn appears in our eastern sky as soon as darkness falls. How can you spot Saturn? One clue is that it’s near a bright star again in 2013, Spica in the constellation Virgo. Read on for some tips on how to spot the ringed planet.
Tip for finding Saturn #1: Use the Big Dipper and the star Spica. Spica – the brightest star in the constellation Virgo – is your best bet for recognizing Saturn in 2013. The planet Saturn shines below the star Spica in the evening sky, and the two are noticeably close together throughout the night. How can you find Spica? The Big Dipper is an excellent guide. You can follow the arc to Arcturus and drive a spike to Spica from the handle of the Big Dipper.
Once you identify Spica, notice the bright golden star-like object somewhat nearby. That’ll be Saturn. The star, Spica, shines blue-white and twinkles, while the planet, Saturn, is golden and shines steadily. Saturn and Spica’s orientation with respect to the horizon will change throughout 2013, and they are different in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But the star Spica can help you find Saturn throughout this year. Two bright objects in the sky, near each other, might be them!
If you’re handy with a planisphere, you can estimate Spica’s position in your sky – then use Spica to locate Saturn. But it might be easier for most people to star-hop to Spica and Saturn from the Big Dipper.
Generally speaking, now that Saturn is just past opposition, it’s out from dusk until nearly dawn.
Tip for finding Saturn #2: Use the planet Jupiter. Have you been watching the dazzling planet Jupiter in the evening sky? You can’t miss it because it’s the brightest star-like object in the west after sunset. If you know Jupiter, it can help you spot Saturn.
When Jupiter sits low in the west at early-to-mid evening, look in the opposite direction to spot Saturn low in the eastern sky. After rising, Saturn will climb upward and westward throughout the evening hours. Why do both Jupiter and Saturn move toward the west throughout the night? Because Earth turns toward the east under the stars.
So if you spot Jupiter – brightest star-like object in the evening sky – and you turn opposite it to find Saturn, how can you be sure the object you’re seeing is Saturn? Remember, Saturn shines with a golden light. It’s a planet, so this world doesn’t twinkle as stars do. And also, remember the star Spica. It’s your ace in the hole for finding Saturn in 2013.
Saturn is the faintest of the bright planets. It’s still pretty bright, but, normally, you wouldn’t pick it out from among the stars. But around May of 2013, you can view Saturn fairly easily, because Saturn appears as bright as the brightest stars. Saturn shines a touch brighter than Spica, the brightest star to light up the constellation Virgo. Around opposition on April 28, as we went between the sun and Saturn, the ringed planet was at its closest to Earth and brightest in our sky. Now, in May 2013, Saturn ascends in the eastern sky in the hours after sunset. Very easy to spot, if you know how to identify it.
Because we will pass Saturn – the sixth planet outward from the sun – from an inside track around the sun, the ringed planet will look as if it’s going backward (retrograde) in front of the fixed stars of the Zodiac for several months. In 2013, Saturn retrogrades from February 19 until July 9.
By the way, Saturn’s yearly opposition happens about two weeks later with each passing year. The 2009 opposition was on March 8. The 2010 opposition was on March 21. The 2011 opposition was on April 3. The 2012 opposition was April 15. The 2013 opposition was April 28. And the 2014 opposition will occur May 10. So you see that Saturn – like most objects in the heavens – is really very orderly in its comings and goings in our sky. Once you learn to identify it, you can recognize it from year to year.
Where will Saturn be in the second half of 2013? Saturn is nearly always somewhere in our sky, for most of every year. In 2013, as Earth moves in its orbit, we’ll see Saturn shift its location in our sky. Each night at sunset, Saturn will appear farther to the west in our sky. Finally, in late September or October of 2013, Saturn will disappear in the western twilight after sunset.
One last thing, for you telescope users: from February 11, 1996, to September 4, 2009, the south side of Saturn’s rings was facing in Earth’s direction. Since then, we’ve been looking at the north side of the rings. In March 2013, the rings are inclined at 19o from edge-on. The inclination will shrink to a minimum of 17o in July and will increase to a maximum of 22o by the end of the year.
Saturn basics. Earth travels around the sun once a year, while Saturn takes about 29-and-a-half years to orbit the sun once. Earth’s orbit is smaller, and we move faster than this outer planet. So once a year, we pass between Saturn and the sun and gain another lap on the planet.
You might realize from what I just said that Saturn is relatively slow-moving in orbit and, therefore, slow to change its position against the background stars. That’s why the early stargazers called it “the oldest of the old sheep.”
Like all planets, Saturn is lovely to gaze upon. Its golden color is fascinatingly reminiscent of wonderful spacecraft photos of Saturn. It’s a real place, after all, not just a light in the sky. Plus, Saturn’s brightness waxes and wanes in a subtle way throughout every year, making it fun to watch.
Can you see the rings of Saturn if you look with the eye alone? No, you need a small telescope to see the rings. But, to the unaided eye, Saturn will appear as a bright golden “star” … very beautiful. And unlike the twinkling stars, Saturn will shine with a steady light. That might help you identify it.
Bottom line: The best time for viewing the planet Saturn in 2013 has been late April and May. The ringed planet is at its brightest and in the sky all night, or nearly so. Why? Because we passed between Saturn and the sun on April 28. Saturn is noticeable throughout 2013 because it’s near a bright star, Spica in the constellation Virgo. Enjoy!