Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
On Sunday, the ringed planet Saturn will be at its closest point to the Earth for the year, a point called opposition. At the moment of opposition, the Earth is positioned directly between Saturn and the sun, placing the two planets as close together as they can be. Oppositions of Saturn happen about every 12 1/2 months as the faster-moving Earth gains a lap on Saturn and catches up to it from behind. This year, on Sunday, Saturn will be 781 million miles from Earth.
Saturn is surrounded by a system of magnificent rings that completely encircles the planet's equator. The rings are composed of millions of tiny ice particles, probably particles blasted off one or more of Saturn's small, icy moons by the impact of a comet.
Speaking of moons, Saturn has quite a large family of worlds and mini-worlds orbiting around it. To date, astronomers know of 60 moons orbiting Saturn. The largest is Titan, a planet-sized moon with a thick, cloudy atmosphere. Saturn, Titan and many other moons are being studied right now by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which was placed into orbit around Saturn in July 2004. Spectacular photographs of the Saturn system are beamed back to Earth daily, helping us understand the mysteries of this distant world. Check out the latest amazing Cassini images of Saturn at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.
You can spot Saturn, without any optical aid, rising in the eastern sky just after sunset. It appears as a bright, yellowish star that doesn't twinkle like a regular star, but gleams with a steady light. This year, Saturn is positioned near the tail of Leo the Lion and Leo's second brightest star, Denebola.
If you own a telescope - even a small one - try aiming it at Saturn. Saturn offers the biggest "wow" factor of any other object visible through a small telescope. You can easily see for yourself Saturn's magnificent icy rings and its largest moons. Try looking around March 9, 16 and 24 when the giant moon Titan appears farthest away from the rings and is easiest to spot. Titan will look like a little orange "star" just beyond the edge of the rings. Later this year, Saturn's rings will position themselves edgewise to us and will seem to disappear from view around the first week of September. For the time being, they appear as a thin line across the planet's equator.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all around the world. Check out Jimmy's Web site at www.jwestlake.com.