At opposition, Saturn is typically about 793 million miles (1,269 million km) from the Earth, over twice the comparable distance to Jupiter. Saturn is a gas giant, like Jupiter, and most of the planet we see represents its atmosphere. However, it receives much less solar energy at its great distance from the sun and the fact that the planet is smaller than Jupiter means that there is less internal heat to drive the planet’s weather. Atmospheric banding is muted and, to the eye, the planet appears golden with largely pastel color variations.
The magnificent rings are formed by a composite of thousands of ringlets of particles of ice and rock, most ranging in size from dust to sand. The rings, which tend to look white in a telescope, combined with the golden hue of the planet itself create a view that many consider to be the jewel of the solar system. The planet has over 50 verified moons along with a number that are still pending. These make up some of the most interesting satellites in the solar system, including the record for the largest moon of any planet – Titan. Click on Saturn on the [NASA Solar System Exploration] page for more information on this beautiful and fascinating planet.
Saturn is the most distant of the naked eye planets known in antiquity. It is reasonably bright in the night sky, but when you go to image it you realize how little light is actually available. In smaller telescopes, Saturn is definitely a “dim bulb”, requiring longer, less favorable exposures. Saturn was also very low on the horizon in the 2017 opposition, further reducing its brightness and providing more opportunities for atmospheric distortion. Despite this, a number of passable images were obtained. The tilt of the planet this year shows the rings very close to their optimal exposure. Over an 11 year cycle the tilt of the planet as we see it will begin to decrease until the rings will be viewed edge on and will barely be visible. Given another 11 years beyond that, the rings will be back pretty much as we saw them this year.
My best images of the 2017 apparition were obtained on 25 July 2017, almost six weeks after opposition. Saturn is large enough that, like Jupiter, it is worth attempting to image whenever it is visible in a dark sky.
The 2018 opposition of Saturn will be on 27 June 2018. You should get reasonably good views for two months on either side of the formal opposition. New images will be posted as they are acquired.