Thrilling Moons & Glorious Rings!
The two most exciting of all the planets (Venus and Mars not withstanding!) are perfectly placed in the evening sky for your enjoyment this month. They are the many-mooned planet Jupiter and ringed planet Saturn—both offering wonders not to be missed by skywatchers.
If you go out on the next clear night and face south, you will see two bright objects shining in the sky. The one on the right is Jupiter and to its left and somewhat lower Saturn. Jupiter is in Scorpius and Saturn in adjoining Sagittarius. Setting your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to about 8:00 p.m. will show both constellations ideally placed —but not the planets themselves. That’s because planets are constantly on the move and so can’t be shown on any permanent star chart like ours. But on its back is a table showing in which constellations they can be found for any given month and year.
As we’ve discussed in the past, even the smallest of telescopes will show Jupiter’s four bright Galilean satellites (those named after their discoverer Galileo), which look positively gem-like at magnifications as low as 25x to 30x. And binoculars will actually reveal their presence as they change position about the planet from night to night. A 7x or 10×50 glass held steadily shows at least a couple of them, depending on where they are in their orbital dance. For an even better (and much more relaxing) view, try using image-stabilized (IS) binoculars, which eliminate the “shakes” usually associated with using hand-held glasses. They will also hint at Jupiter’s non-stellar-appearing disk itself.
Next we come to magnificent Saturn—the iconic image of astronomy, and perhaps the most thrilling and awe-inspiring sight in the universe! A 2-inch scope at 25x just resolves the rings hugging the planet, giving it the appearance of some exquisite piece of cosmic jewelry. The larger the telescope and the higher the magnification, the more amazing and unearthly the planet appears. Indeed, many have remarked that Saturn looks too beautiful to be real!
Steadily-held 10×50 binoculars will show Saturn as egg-shaped—the unresolved blended image of planet and rings. You are indeed seeing Saturn and its rings! With careful attention, image-stabilized glasses at 15x will reveal the rings themselves just barely separated from the planet. Combined with neighboring Jupiter just a few degrees away in the sky these August evening, here indeed is a planetary “double treat” not to be missed!
In closing, mention should be made that the annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of August 12th to 13th but will be largely washed out by the Moon approaching full just two nights later.
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of 10 books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.