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NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

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.

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science
The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top
iStock
iStock

If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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