This season, Saturn reveals its mysterious ring system in a big way

Summer Skies 

This season, Saturn reveals its mysterious ring system in a big way.

By Steve Kates


The heat is on! Summer arrives for us at 9:24 p.m. on June 20. At that time, the sun reaches its highest point above the northern hemisphere along the ecliptic path. This means, the sun is at its highest elevation in our sky for the year.

June and July are great months to look at the many riches in our Arizona skies. June should be called the month of Saturn, as the ringed planet puts on a great show. It reaches opposition on the night of June 15. At that time, Saturn will rise with the setting sun and be in our skies all night.

Saturn takes some 29 years to make one circuit around the sky and even though it will appear lower in our Arizona skies this year, Saturn reveals its mighty ring system in a most amazing way in 2017.

This year, Saturn will reveal more of its ring system and you’ll be able to peer deep into the northern hemisphere of this gas giant. During the next 12 months, the rings will be tilted to as much as 27 degrees to our line of sight, making this a must-see planet. During this period of time, Saturn lies in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the 13th sign of the zodiac.

Saturn will rise in the southeastern sky at sunset and take a low arc across the sky. Even in a small telescope, the ring system of Saturn will span some 42 seconds of arc in your field of view. You may even get a glimpse of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, as it orbits the main planet.

Moving on to the Earth’s moon, we find that as June opens up, the moon will appear at first quarter as it moves on to the full strawberry moon of June 9 at 6:10 a.m. The moon then wanes and reaches its last quarter phase on June 17 with another great new moon on the 30th.

Venus appears as a bright object in the morning sky and shines, well ahead of the rising sun, in the northeastern sky before dawn during June. It reaches its greatest western elongation, some 46 degrees ahead of the rising sun, on June 3.

July skies also offer us some great sights, although monsoon storms might limit our viewing opportunities. The moon begins July as a waxing gibbous moon and then on to the full buck moon on July 8 at 9:07 p.m. This moon is also known as the full thunder moon.

The moon then wanes and reaches its last quarter phase of July 16. Observers should note, the next dark of the moon, aka new moon, is on July 23. This sets us up for two important observation windows.

First, during the period of July 23 and 24, we get to view the summer Milky Way at its best by looking to the southern skies at 9 p.m. The rich star fields of Scorpius and Sagittarius will be easy to see with the naked eye and binoculars.

The second event is the annual Delta Aquariid meteor shower, which will peak on the nights of July 27 and 28. Look low in the southern sky after midnight for the best results, with no moon in the sky to interfere.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at dwarf planet Pluto. Pluto reaches opposition on the night of July 10 in the rich star clouds of Sagittarius. Discovered here in Arizona by Clyde Tombaugh, on Feb. 18,1930, only a large telescope can reveal this dwarf planet. It’s so far away that light from our sun takes over five hours to get to this tiny world.


Spotlight on Saturn

Saturn is the least dense planet in the Solar System.

Saturn is a flattened ball.

Saturn has only been visited four times by spacecraft.

Saturn has 62 moons.


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