<I>Up close and personal with Saturn</I><BR>Now's the perfect time to view the ringed planet
Photo courtesy of NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team Looming like a flying saucer in our outer solar system, Saturn and its magnificent rings nod majestically over the course of its 29-year journey around the sun. These Hubble telescope images, from 1996 to 2000, show Saturn's rings open up as the planet moves around the sun.
More than 100 years ago, in 1896, Percival Lowell peered into the same telescope to study Mars.
In July the Cassini spacecraft will go into an insertion orbit of Saturn, and its Huygens probe is expected to land on the surface of Titan, the planet's largest moon, in January 2005.
"Saturn is absolutely perfectly placed," Lowell Observatory's senior supervisor of public programs' Tim Rodriguez, said. "Every 14 years we can see its rings fully tilted at 27 degrees. It's the best thing to view in a telescope."
Saturn has maintained a closer view to Earth thanks to events that transpired at the end of last December, when the planet was low in the East.
It arrived at close opposition to Earth, meaning its rings are now at maximum visibility through a telescope. Star watchers can also see fine dark lines of narrow gaps in the rings that are smaller than Saturn's Cassini's Division.
This month Saturn is directly overhead in the night sky, making this the prime viewing time because there's a smaller amount of atmosphere to cloud the picture.
Rodriguez said gazers should look into the telescope between 7 and 7:30 p.m. for optimum visibility.
"One can see much more of the ring," Rodriguez said. "A lot more sunlight is refracted back and Saturn looks even brighter."
Lowell Public Program Senior Supervisor Kevin Schindler said that since the rings are tilted at a 27-degree angle, they appear wider than normal.
In addition to a stronger view of Saturn, the Clark telescope will also reveal several of the planet's moons. Titan, which has a diameter measuring twice that of Earth's moon, fascinates sky gazers around the world.