Saturn Shines This Week – 3 Ways to View the Planet’s Opposition

Saturn will be located directly opposite of the Sun – at opposition – on August 26-27, 2023, as the Earth orbits between the two. From our vantage point, the Sun’s illumination will allow Saturn to appear bigger and brighter in the sky in the weeks leading up to and after the opposition. In fact, Saturn remains visible until February 2024, so don’t worry if your local weather doesn’t cooperate with your viewing plans on any particular day.

A graph that shows how far away Saturn is from the sun via concentric circles.
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest planet in our solar system. Like fellow gas giant Jupiter, Saturn is a massive ball made mostly of hydrogen and helium. Saturn is not the only planet to have rings, but none are as spectacular or as complex as Saturn’s.(Credit: NASA Solar System)

Unaided Eye
Saturn is the farthest planet from Earth easily visible by the unaided human eye. It will appear on the southeastern horizon at sunset and you can spot the bright yellowish “star” all through the night until sunrise. Although you won’t be able to view any distinguishing features, like the famed icy rings without an aid, opposition is the brightest the planet will appear – pretty good for something over 800 million miles away!

The rings of Saturn in colors of Green Blue and red to depict how cold they are.
The varying temperatures of Saturn’s rings are depicted in this false-color image from the Cassini spacecraft. This image represents the most detailed look to date at the temperature of Saturn’s rings. (Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/Ames)

Binoculars
Viewing Saturn through binoculars will enhance its golden color and depending on your binoculars, allow you to make out a hint of the telltale rings, appearing more like “ears”. If you have dark, clear viewing conditions, you may also be able to observe Saturn’s largest moon Titan through your binoculars.

Telescope
As is true with other celestial objects, a telescope will vastly improve what and how much you are able to see. Even a small telescope will allow you to see more details of Saturn’s rings. Of all the planets that can be observed, many astronomers encourage a Saturn-viewing in everyone’s lifetime. Even a modest magnification can provide a unique experience.

Two images of Saturn with rings. The top image shows more of a beige with a tint of red with white rings and the bottom image is very yellow with yellow rings.
The top image is a view from NASA’s Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope taken on March 22, 2004. Camera exposures in four filters (blue, blue-green, green and red) were combined to form the Hubble image and render colors similar to what the eye would see through a telescope focused on Saturn. The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft returned the bottom image of Saturn on May 16, 2004, when its imaging science subsystem narrow-angle camera was too close to fit the entire planet in its field-of-view. (Credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona), Cassini: NASA/JPL)

Bonus Viewing
Opposition not only makes for a slightly bigger and brighter appearing planet, but as you watch the skies over the next week, you’ll also be treated to a waxing gibbous moon leading up to the Super Blue Moon on August 30, 2023. A supermoon occurs when the Moon’s orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth at the same time the Moon is full, causing the Moon to appear slightly larger and brighter than a regular full moon. A blue moon is the second full moon in a month.

Happy skygazing!

By Lauren Perkins
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Saturn to Reach Opposition Aug. 14

Saturn will have one of its best viewing opportunities of the year in the period surrounding Sunday, Aug. 14. Or it would, if the nearly Full Moon doesn’t spoil our fun.

On that date, Saturn will reach opposition – the point where it lies directly opposite the Sun in our night sky – around midnight local time for most stargazers, with the constellation Capricornus behind it.

Saturn will be visible for much of the night, rising above the southeastern horizon and lingering high in the southern sky. This will occur during Saturn’s perigee – its closest approach to Earth – making it even larger and brighter than usual.

An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, where it documented the ringed planet in 2017.
An illustration of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, where it documented the ringed planet in 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

But as previously noted the last blog, the Moon will become full Aug. 11-12, and its bright wash of light will challenge spotters to clearly make out much around it in the night sky. Hopefully, Saturn’s position – west of the rising Moon – won’t cause it to be directly impacted.

The best thing about opposition this year is that Saturn will be visible all night long, said Caleb Fassett, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “That gives stargazers a good, long chance to find and observe it,” he said.

And despite the light-clutter from the Moon, all may not be lost. The rings of Saturn will face Earth at a 13-degree angle to our line of sight. And though Saturn is much farther from the Sun than our planet – an average 886 million miles out, compared to 94.4 million for Earth – a unique phenomenon may lend it even greater brightness during opposition.

The Seeliger effect, named for German astronomer Hugo von Seeliger, who died in 1924, identifies a dramatic brightening of a distant body or particle field when illuminated from directly behind the observer. With Earth passing between Saturn and the Sun, the sixth planet’s icy rings are likely to brighten perceptibly in the hours around opposition. 

Even so, it will still require a telescope to spot Saturn – which takes 29.4 Earth years to complete a single solar orbit – as anything more than a bright point of light.

Fassett recommends a 4-inch to 8-inch telescope to fully resolve the rings and provide a good look at the planet itself during opposition. With a decent telescope, it may even be possible to catch a glimpse of Titan and other Saturnian moons.

“It’s always pretty cool to see the distant planets, and Saturn is wild,” Fassett said. “Its rings and other unique characteristics make it a great subject of study for amateur astronomers and young space enthusiasts, and its moons are of great scientific interest.”

Among them is Titan, largest of Saturn’s moons, and the destination for NASA’s planned Dragonfly mission. Set to launch in 2027, Dragonfly will deliver an 8-bladed rotorcraft to the icy surface of Titan in the mid-2030s. There, it will examine the atmosphere and take samples of the surface, advancing our search for the building blocks of life and characterization of Titan’s habitability.

Learn more about Saturn here.

by Rick Smith

Jupiter-Saturn Great Conjunction: Watch Best View Since Middle Ages!

by Lance D. Davis


Stargazers get ready for a nice treat as we are about to witness a super-rare planetary alignment not seen for almost 800 years!

Our solar system’s two biggest worlds – the mighty Jupiter followed by the glorious ringed Saturn – will appear in the sky next to each other at their closest since 1623 and closest visible from Earth since the Middle Ages in 1226. This will happen on Dec. 21, 2020, during an event called a “great conjunction.”

Astronomers use the word conjunction to describe close approaches of planets and other objects on our sky’s dome. They use great conjunction specifically for Jupiter and Saturn because of the planets’ top-ranking sizes.

view of the 2020 great conjunction through the naked eye just after sunset
A graphic made from a simulation program, showing a view of the 2020 great conjunction through the naked eye just after sunset at approximately 5:15 p.m. (EST) on Dec. 21.
Credit: NASA

Great conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, making the planets appear to be close to one another. This closeness occurs because Jupiter orbits the Sun every 12 years, while Saturn’s orbit takes 30 years, causing Jupiter to catch up to Saturn every couple of decades as viewed from Earth.

The last conjuction between these planets took place on May 28, 2000. This year’s conjunction occurs on Dec. 21, which coincidentally is also the date of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The 2020 conjunction is unique because of how close Jupiter and Saturn will appear. In most conjunctions, Jupiter and Saturn pass within a degree of each other. This year, they will pass 10 times closer to each other – the closest in nearly 400 years.

view of the 2020 great conjunction through a telescope
A graphic made from a simulation program, showing the view of the 2020 great conjunction
through a telescope at approximately 5:15 p.m. (EST) on Dec. 21. Credit: NASA

Currently, you can watch Jupiter and Saturn get closer in Earth’s sky each evening until their grand finale on Dec. 21. Just look for them shortly after sunset, shining brightly and low in the southwestern sky. Also, tune in to NASA Science Live or NASA Facebook on Dec. 17 at 3:00 p.m. EST (2:00 p.m. CST) and learn how to see Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction.

During the great conjunction, the giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart – that’s about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length! This means the two planets and their moons will be visible in the same field of view through a small telescope. Truly, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event!

Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star and others say the two planets will form a double planet. To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!

Additional Information & Resources:

Learn how to photograph the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.
Read about mission visits to Jupiter and Saturn.
Find an astronomy club or event near you!

Sky Watching Highlights for December 2020

In the month of December, stargazers get ready for some excitement in the sky! Catch the year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, in the middle of the month. Then, witness an extremely close pairing of Jupiter and Saturn that won’t be repeated for decades. And mark the shortest day of the year on the northern winter solstice. Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more!

Sky Watching Highlights for November 2020

Are you ready for November’s sky watching highlights? Cool autumn evenings are a great time to look for the Pleiades star cluster. You’ll also have a couple of great opportunities to observe the Moon with Jupiter and Saturn. Plus, check out the phenomenon known as Earthshine. Learn about all that and more from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s video below!

Five Planets Align in Early Morning Sky

The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama.  It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.

The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.

In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.

Image generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software.
Image generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software.