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Give me five minutes and I’ll give you Saturn in 2016

Saturn isn’t as bright as Mars, but it’s near Mars on the sky’s dome. It’ll soon be at its best for the year. Learn how to identify Saturn for the rest of 2016.

In October 2013, Cassini flew high above Saturn, looking down toward its north pole. It took a series of shots that were then assembled into this amazing mosaic by software engineer Gordan Ugarkovic.

In October 2013, Cassini flew high above Saturn, looking down toward its north pole. It took a series of shots that were then assembled into this amazing mosaic by software engineer Gordan Ugarkovic.

Saturn is the sixth planet outward from the sun and farthest planet that’s easily visible to the unaided eye. You need a telescope to see the planet’s wide, encircling rings, but Saturn is also fun to watch with the eye alone. It shines with a steady light and golden color. Follow the links below to learn more about seeing Saturn throughout 2016.

When can I see Saturn in 2016?

To find Saturn in May and June, 2016, look for the constellation Scorpius and very bright Mars!

Saturn is closest, brightest, opposite the sun on June 3.

Where will Saturn be in the second half of 2016?

Saturn basics.

Watch the brilliant waxing gibbous moon swing by the planets Mars and Saturn, plus the star Antares, on June 16, June 17 and June 18.

Watch the brilliant waxing gibbous moon swing by the planets Mars and Saturn, plus the star Antares, on June 16, June 17 and June 18.

When can I see Saturn in 2016? In May, Saturn is coming up in mid-evening. Thats midway between sunset and midnight, in your location. Like all celestial objects, Saturn will rise in the east, wheel across the sky and set in the west.

By late May and early June, as Earth gets ready to fly between Saturn and the sun on June 3, Saturn will be rising around sunset. At that time, Saturn will be more or less opposite the sun as seen from Earth. It’ll rise in the east at sunset, climb highest up at your local midnight, and set in the west at sunrise.

So May, June and July are especially good months for viewing Saturn in 2016!

The bright one here is Mars, but Saturn and the star Antares are also noticeable in this triangle pattern.  Photo taken on the morning of May 8, 2016 by Simon Waldram. Thanks, Simon!

Bright one here is Mars, with Saturn and the star Antares also very noticeable in a triangle pattern on the sky’s dome. Watch for them! Photo taken on the morning of May 8, 2016 by Simon Waldram. Thanks, Simon!

Scorpius is one of the few constellations that looks like its namesake.  The bright red star Antares marks the Scorpion's Heart.  Notice also the two stars at the tip of the Scorpion's Tail.  They are known as The Stinger.

View larger. | To verify that you’re looking at Saturn, find Scorpius’ brightest star, Antares, and the compact line of three stars – sometimes called the Scorpion’s Crown – to the west of Antares.

To find Saturn in May, 2016, look for the constellation Scorpius and very bright Mars! Mars, Saturn and Antares – brightest star in the Scorpion – are in a triangle pattern on our sky’s dome now. They’ll make a triangle in our sky for months to come in 2016.

Mars is now getting much brighter and heading toward its brightest and closest for this two-year period. Read more about Mars’ opposition on May 22.

Notice the colors of these two planets and this star. Saturn shines with a golden color, while Antares and Mars are both reddish. And, remember, Mars is brightest of these three objects … then Saturn … then Antares.

Want to identify the rest of Scorpius? It’s one of the few constellations that looks like its name. You can recognize the entire constellation for the graceful fishhook shape of the stars of the Scorpion’s Tail. Antares is the bright star at the Heart of the Scorpion. Also notice three closely-knit, modestly-bright stars to the west (right) of Antares. These stars are an asterism – or very recognizable star pattern – known as the Crown of the Scorpion.

Not to scale.  An opposition takes place when Earth goes between Saturn and the sun.  Via theakumalian.com

Not to scale. An opposition takes place when Earth goes between Saturn and the sun. Via theakumalian.com

Saturn is closest, brightest, opposite the sun on June 3. On June 3, 2016, we will go between the sun and Saturn. Astronomers call this an opposition of Saturn, because the planet will appear opposite the sun in our sky, rising in the east as the sun sets in the west.

June 3 – the opposition date – features the ringed planet at its closest to Earth and brightest in our sky. 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 or June of 2016, you can view Saturn fairly easily, because Saturn appears as bright as the brightest stars. Saturn shines a even brighter than Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius.

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 2016, Saturn retrogrades – moves westward in front of the stars, in contrast to its regular, eastward motion – from March 25 until August 13.

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. The 2014 opposition happened on May 10. The 2015 opposition occurred on May 23, and the 2016 opposition will be on June 3.

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.

View larger. | Golden Saturn as seen by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1980

View larger. | Golden Saturn as seen by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1980

Where will Saturn be in the second half of 2016? Saturn is nearly always somewhere in our sky, for most of every year. In the second half 2016, as Earth moves away from Saturn in its orbit, we’ll see Saturn shift its location in our evening sky.

After Saturn’s opposition in June 2016, Saturn will appear farther to the west as darkness falls each month thereafter.

Finally, in November of 2016, 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. Throughout the most of 2016, the rings are inclined at about 26o from edge-on. The inclination will increase to a maximum of nearly 27o by the end of the year.

Saturn yearly observations comparison by Abhijit Juvekar. The rings are even more open in 2016, at a inclination of 26o on the opposition date of June 3, 2016.

Saturn yearly observations comparison by Abhijit Juvekar. The rings are even more open in 2016, at a inclination of 26o on the opposition date of June 3, 2016.

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 we 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.

Saturn eclipsing the sun, as seen by Cassini spacecraft in 2006. More about this image. Credit: CICLOPS, JPL, ESA, NASA

Bottom line: The best time for viewing the planet Saturn in 2016 comes in June and July. The ringed planet will be at its brightest and in the sky all night, or nearly so. Why? Because we’ll pass between Saturn and the sun on June 3. Saturn can be found near the Crown of the Scorpion, the star Antares and the very bright planet Mars. Enjoy!

Deborah Byrd

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