Look Up Tonight! Saturn Is Big and Bright, With Rings Tilted Our Way

NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

Look up tonight, June 14, and overnight into the early morning hours of June 15, and you’ll be able to see Saturn looming luminously in the evening sky. Bring a telescope and you might even be able to see its rings.

Tonight, Saturn is “at opposition”—that is, as close to the Earth as it's going to get this year, and therefore big and bright. It's because our orbits: We are presently in alignment with the Sun, and between it and Saturn, so from our perspective, the disc of Saturn is in full illumination. Think of it as a “full Saturn,” with the same general idea at work as when we have a full Moon.

So what are you waiting for? You’re not going to live forever. Grab a telescope and a blanket and get to the countryside. The Roman god of agriculture and wealth awaits!

HOW DO I SEE IT?

When you look at Mars through a telescope, you’re looking for the ice caps. When you look at Jupiter, you’re looking for its moons and gorgeous stripes. When you look at our Moon, you want to see the craters, ridges, and mountains along the terminator (the line dividing light and dark during the moon’s phases). Saturn, of course, is all about the rings.

Here is the good news: Any telescope of reasonable power should be able to see Saturn’s rings. (That $30 novelty telescope you bought your kid for Christmas that’s collecting dust in a closet? If it has 25x magnification—and it probably does—and if the sky is clear and light pollution low and you know what you’re doing, you can use that.)

Here’s the bad news: Saturn is smaller than Jupiter and a lot farther away from the Earth. Right now, even as it nears opposition, it's nine astronomical units away. (An astronomical unit is the distance between the Sun and the Earth.) This means you should prepare yourself for something less spectacular than Cassini-generated images. It’s going to be small. It’s going to be fuzzy. But it will be recognizable as Saturn, and it's a good year to try to spot its rings.

the rings of saturn
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A good view of the rings is not always a guarantee. Some years, the rings are edge-on when seen through a telescope, making them appear more as a single flat line bisecting the planet than as actual rings circling an alien world. (Without enough magnification, the rings might seem to vanish entirely.) Other years, the rings are “open,” Saturn’s pole tilting our way, and you get that wonderful Glamour Shots pose, the rings 45-degrees forward and giving the camera all it’s got. This is because of the planet's orbit and tilts.

Why is it so important for you to get out there and check out Saturn tonight? Because 2017 is a “wide open” year. You’re going to see it all, and with enough telescope, you’ll even be able to make out the gap between the rings and the planet. Saturn will first creep over the southeastern horizon just after 9:30 p.m. EDT on June 14, and will reach its highest point in the sky around 1:30 a.m. This is the best time for viewing: a high, bright Saturn, due south and with rings aplenty. If you’re setting an alarm, give yourself a lot of time to set up and for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The usual conditions apply: You need a clear sky and no light pollution.

If the weather is bad tonight or you have unbreakable plans, take heart: Saturn will look virtually identical tomorrow night—so much so that beginning at 8 pm EDT on June 15, Slooh is hosting a livestream of the planet featuring views from telescopes and live commentary by astronomers.

SOON THE ONLY WAY TO SEE IT

After September 15, the only way anyone will be able to see Saturn’s rings is to use a telescope, whether of the backyard or the Hubble variety. That’s because NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which first arrived in the Saturnian system on July 1, 2004, will finally arrive at the end of its mission on that day. Cassini’s grand finale will see the spacecraft plunge into the mysterious atmosphere of the gas giant, where it will disintegrate, though not before returning data revealing the nature of the planet’s magnetosphere and surface winds, and providing some idea of composition of its core.

Cassini is at present still orbiting Saturn, though you will not be able to see the spacecraft with your telescope tonight, even if you do have access to Hubble.

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

iStock
iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

One Good Reason Not to Hold in a Fart: It Could Leak Out of Your Mouth

iStock/grinvalds
iStock/grinvalds

The next time you hold in a fart for fear of being heard by polite company, just remember this: It could leak out of your mouth instead of your butt. Writing on The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins explains that pent-up gas can pass through your gut wall and get reabsorbed into your circulation. It's then released when you exhale, whether you like it or not.

“Holding on too long means the build up of intestinal gas will eventually escape via an uncontrollable fart,” Collins writes. In this case, the fart comes out of the wrong end. Talk about potty mouth.

A few brave scientists have investigated the phenomenon of flatulence. In one study, 10 healthy volunteers were fed half a can of baked beans in addition to their regular diets and given a rectal catheter to measure their farts over a 24-hour period. Although it was a small sample, the results were still telling. Men and women let loose the same amount of gas, and the average number of “flatus episodes” (a single fart, or series of farts) during that period was eight. Another study of 10 people found that high-fiber diets led to fewer but bigger farts, and a third study found that gases containing sulphur are the culprit of the world’s stinkiest farts. Two judges were tapped to rate the odor intensity of each toot, and we can only hope that they made it out alive.

Scientific literature also seems to support Collins’s advice to “let it go.” A 2010 paper on “Methane and the gastrointestinal tract” says methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that are produced in the intestinal tract are mostly eliminated from the body via the anus or “expelled from the lungs.” Holding it in can lead to belching, flatulence, bloating, and pain. And in some severe cases, pouches can form along the wall of the colon and get infected, causing diverticulitis.

So go ahead and let it rip, just like nature intended—but maybe try to find an empty room first.

[h/t CBS Philadelphia]

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