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

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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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Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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