Observing Tips - Saturn

Saturn is arguably the most beautiful object you will ever see through your telescope. Many astronomers today (including myself) entered into the field of astronomy because of the inspiration they received from seeing Saturn through a telescope. At 4th Day Alliance star parties, without question, a view of Saturn through our telescopes is always a “show-stopper.” There’s just something about those rings!

Saturn can easily be seen with a small 60mm telescope - the key is to set your expectations low. Since you have probably seen dozens of images of Saturn reproduced from the Hubble Space Telescope, you need to be forewarned that what you will see through your telescope will not be like the images you have seen before.

Saturn highly tilted zoom
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Saturn is actually very small, in terms of being a target for a telescope. It’s only 21 arcseconds in diameter at its most favorable oppositions (meaning when its orbit brings it closest to the Earth). Saturn's ring system is more than twice as wide as the planet’s sphere. In most telescopes, if you try to magnify it too much, it will probably turn into a blur.

Nevertheless, with time, patience, and a top-quality 4-inch or larger telescope, you can get more out of Saturn than you realized. Of course, you shouldn’t expect Hubble-like performance out of your personal telescope, but you will probably find viewing Saturn with your own eyes more exhilarating than looking at the Hubble photographs.

You should be able to see the rings of Saturn should in even the smallest telescope (like a 60mm) at 25x magnification. In a small scope like this, the rings will look like they are attached to the planet’s sphere. It will look like one solid structure. However, a good 3-inch scope or larger at 50x magnification will show the rings as a separate structure detached on all sides from the sphere (or ball) of the planet.

Cassini Division zoom
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When the viewing conditions are right, you can see details in Saturn’s rings. The most obvious is the black Cassini Division between the A and B rings. The clarity of the Cassini division serves as a good test for your telescope’s optical quality and the atmospheric conditions at the time of viewing. The outer A ring is clearly dimmer than the B ring which is inside.

Saturn’s many moons are also fun to observe. All those little white dots you see around Saturn are its moons. You should make a sketch of where these dots are in relationship to Saturn each night for a week. You will notice each night that these dots move from night to night. You are literally observing Saturn’s moons as they orbit the planet!