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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

. . . and Saturn’s rings vanish too!

Yes they do – and they do it this week (September 4, 2009) , and it’s fascinating, too – but not nearly so easy to observe as Jupiter and its moons – unless you’re int he southern hemisohere.

I had been so wrapped up in the vanishing  act of Jupiter’s moons this week I had forgotten that this is also the week that Saturn’s rings vanish as well! Then today Spaceweather.com published a wonderful little video – not a simulation, but  a real picture animation made by an amateur – showing our changing perspective of the ring system over a period of several years. You can see it here. Spaceweather.com introduces it this way:

On Sept. 4, 2009, Saturn will turn its rings edge-on to Earth, and for the first time in 14 years they will seem to disappear. “To mark the occasion I’ve made an animation combining six years of Saturn observations,” says New York amateur astronomer Alan Friedman. “It shows the changing plane of the ring system as viewed from my Buffalo backyard from 2004 to 2009

Now this really isn’t as much of a shocker to me as the Jupiter’s moon act  simply because the rings have been slowly getting more and more difficult to see and were actually edge on for a period in August  – and because while Saturn is still visible, it’s very, very difficult to see – and dangerous – because it is so close to the Sun.  At sunset on September 4 it will be just 4 degrees from the western horizon and will set 25 minutes after the Sun for my location at 42-degrees north.  That means you need a sparkling clear western horizon, rare indeed, to see it.  Yes,  sophisticated telescope users will tell you that you can see planets in daylight and you can. But when something is this close to the  Sun that’s far too close for comfort and safety as far as I’m concerned.  Make a slight mistake and you get an unfiltered glimpse of the Sun and that will damage your eyes for sure, if not  blind you. For what? To see Saturn without it’s rings? Nope. Not for me. Though it is rare enough – it won’t happen again for 16 years – it just doesn’t have the same appeal to me as Jupiter’s moons.

The long term phenomena is interesting – the animation put together of it is terrific and instructive. Enjoy this event that way. Here’s the link once more. But live viewing? Not worth the try this time from my perspective unless you live in the southern hemisphere. From Sydney, Australia, for example, Saturn will be a respectable – though challenging – 10 degrees above the western horizon at sunset. Thirty minutes after sunset Saturn will still be about 4 degrees above the horizon, beneath a slightly brighter Mercury which will be about 17 degrees high.  I love Saturn – and I love it for its rings. But I’ll wait to greet it again until at least October, but more likely November. Then it will be solidly above the horizon an hour or more before dawn – and yes, it’s rings will be visible then, as once more we’re at an angle to the huge planet so we can see them. Meanwhile, I’ll let Jupiter play its role as the King of Planets, well placed high in the early evening sky and I’ll continue to enjoy the dance of its moons.

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