The planet most people consider the crown jewel of the solar system has returned to the nighttime sky.
Found high in the Southern sky after sunset is the ringed planet, Saturn. The bright planet was known to the ancient Greeks as Chronos, the god of time, and his reign as a major god in the Greek pantheon was depicted as a golden age of abundance and peace. Later, the Romans identified this “wandering star” with Saturnus, the god of agriculture and the harvest.
But the real nature of the planet, Saturn, did not come to light until 1610 when the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei turned his primitive telescope to it and was astonished to see a small bright disk flanked by two “handles.” He was even more astonished when, two years later, the “handles” had disappeared. What had actually occurred was that the Earth had passed through Saturn’s extremely thin ring plane, rendering them invisible through his tiny telescope.
It wasn’t until 1655 that Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens theorized that the projections seen through his improved telescope were actually a solid ring surrounding the planet. That assumption held sway until the mid-19th century, even though in 1660, Jan Chapelain, a founding member of the prestigious Academie Francaise, suggested that the rings were a collection of particles. Unfortunately, his theory was ignored by scientists of the day.
Then in 1856, the eminent English scientist James Maxwell mathematically deduced that the rings could not be solid, but must be made of an infinite number of unconnected particles. At last, the astronomers were able to get it right.
Research into Saturn continues to this day. Astronomers tell us that the gas-giant has an equatorial diameter of 74,600 miles, with an average rotation rate of a bit over 10 hours. This sixth planet from the Sun orbits once each 29.5 years at an average distance of about 800 million miles.
Saturn has a retinue of more than 60 moons, including enigmatic Titan. This moon is the only satellite known to possess a substantial atmosphere, and the only object other than Earth to possess bodies of liquids on its surface. The composition of Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, and the bodies of liquid are thought to be composed of hydrocarbons.
The most notable attribute of Saturn is the highly visible set of seven rings circling the planet. Stretching 180,000 miles from edge to edge, this collection of icy particles has an average thickness of less than 3,000 feet.
When viewed through a telescope, observers may occasionally see vacant zones within the rings structure. The largest of these is the Cassini Division, separating the A and B rings. These dark open areas are the theorized to be the result of gravitational effects of small moons orbiting within the rings.
But for the amateur sky gazer, science takes a back seat to the singular beauty and grandeur of Saturn as seen through a large telescope.
The Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory, 6699 Campus Drive in Placerville, invites everyone to visit on any clear Friday through Sunday evening from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. to see Saturn.
Admission is free, but the experience will be priceless.
For more information and directions to the observatory visit the Website at communitobservatory.com. You can also “like” the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory on Facebook.
Forrest Lockhart is a Lead Docent for Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory.