Saturn is by far one of the mystifying planets in the solar system, and in order to view this ringed planet in all its glory, you need a telescope that’s up to the job.
That said, most people are quite surprised to find out that this planet is just one-eighth the average density of Earth, with an atmosphere made up of helium and hydrogen. Compared to our planet, Saturn is over 95 times larger.
The majestic planet also has a different passage of time to Earth, as one year there equals twenty-nine years here. Saturn also stands out for the number of moons it has: it has a total of fifty-three, which is the highest number of moons of any planet in the solar system.
However, only Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas are big and bright enough to be seen through an amateur telescope.
Saturn’s iconic seven rings actually have gaps in between, so it’s not as simple as simply viewing them all at once. The visibility of its rings is dependent on the angle they adopt every twenty-nine years, which can make some seemingly disappear, giving an optical-illusion-like impression.
The cyclical tilt of Saturn’s rings has an impact on how well we can view them through a telescope. As of 2017, astronomists viewed their widest opening to date, when the rings reached twenty-seven degrees in total.
Prior to this, the gap between them wasn’t as significant as in 1988 when it first opened to its fullest. At present, the northern face of the rings is almost reaching the twenty-two degrees mark.
Some sources speculate that by 2025, the rings will appear edge-on when observing them from Earth, whereas by May 2032, they will incline to the same opening degree they had in 2017, which means that it will be almost impossible to see them.
Despite this, keeping track of the width of the gap in Saturn’s rings will help give us an idea of how much will be visible through a telescope.
Saturn is often depicted as having a 3D appearance, and, through a high-end telescope, it does give this impression due to the shadow that the rings cast on the planet.
This effect becomes more noticeable once you decipher the direction of the shadows and the sunlight, and this gives Saturn that mottled yellow and brown marble effect.
Seen as planets shine steadily from the distance, it’s pretty easy to confuse them with stars. However, Saturn is slightly different in this sense, as its shine has a golden tint to it that can be enhanced with Astronomy Binoculars or planet telescopes, which can make it a little easier to detect.
However, it can be difficult to actually find Saturn, whether you’re looking at it through a professional telescope or one made for beginners. At its clearest, its diameter only reaches up to twenty-one arcseconds, while the rings are 2.25 times as wide as the sphere that comprises its body.
Seeing Saturn’s rings is an experience every astronomer - amateur and professional alike - should experience.
However, it goes without saying that a household telescope won’t provide a good quality image like a professional one will, it’s still worth viewing, though.
It is recommended to have a magnification of 25x for the smaller variant, along with an eyepiece of 15 millimeters, and to preferably view the planet through a Dobsonian telescope.
The size of the telescope and eyepiece will of course influence how much of the planet you can see, as well as the quality of the image. Increasing the magnifying range, contrary to common belief, won’t actually increase the level of detail you can see.
Instead, it’s more likely to make the image look even more blurry.
The solution to this issue is to instead get a telescope with a wide aperture, which will allow you to see more than just Saturn. Regardless of the size and magnifying range of the telescope, Saturn’s rings should always be visible to some degree.
Generally speaking, you can achieve a good image with equipment that reaches the 25x mark. Plus, when viewing conditions are optimal, many observers have even been able to take a closer look at its rings with a 6-inch scope.
Eyepieces between 9 and 30 millimeters are capable of providing good results, and a 2x Barlow lens can further enhance magnification.
We hope this article allows you to see things a little clearer…
In all seriousness, how well you can see Saturn’s rings depends largely on conditions that are outside of your control, such as the cyclical tint of Saturn’s rings, and how clear the viewing conditions are on the day.
You can of course increase your chances of getting a good view of Saturn's rings by ensuring you have good quality equipment and lenses, for example, eyepieces between 9 and 30mm and a 2x Barlow lens, as well as equipment that reaches the 25x mark.
As we said, it’s not unusual for amateurs to get a good peek at Saturn’s famous rings, and you don’t necessarily have to be kitted out with the professional gear in order to do so.
All you need is some decent quality equipment, clear viewing conditions, and of course, a little bit of luck never goes amiss.