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Astronomy From West Virginia


BRIDGEPORT, WV (S-M) - An old friend has returned to the morning sky, and is now high enough before dawn to give astronomers a good view in the Winter of 2008-2009.


Saturn was hidden behind the Sun in late Summer, but Earth's motion is now bringing our planet around to where we can have a good view of the ringed world. By around 4am local time, Saturn is high in the east, under the belly of the contellation Leo, the lion.  It is not necessarily easy for a beginner to spot Saturn in the morning sky, however.


"As Saturn goes around the Sun, we see its rings at various angles," said Senior Editor Glen Ward. "Saturn's axis is tilted somewhat, and so too is the plane of the rings. As Saturn makes its way around its orbit, we see the rings from a little above, and then a little below. Right now, the rings are seen very nearly from the edge, and they appear almost as a straight line across the planet. Since the rings aren't reflecting much light in our direction, Saturn doesn't appear very bright. We were amazed to see how much dimmer Saturn has become since the apparition last Winter. The star Regulus in Leo is rising at about the same time as Saturn. It's easy to mistake it for the planet."


The Earth is expected to pass through the plane of the rings on September 04, 2009. "The rings will become invisible sometime next Summer," said Ward. "They are only about fifty feet thick, and are made up of icy particulate matter and rubble. Watching them disappear gives us a good idea of just how little matter there really is in them." Ward says the disappearance will occur just before the planet disappears behind the Sun, but by the time it reappears in the morning sky next Fall, they will probably be visible again.


Observations in October of Saturn revealed that despite the nearly edge-on perspective of the rings, there was still plenty to see. "Right now, the shadow of the planet on the rings is just barely visible. In a ten inch telescope, you can still see that the rings curve around behind the planet, and you can also see the shadow of the rings on the planet. A couple of bands are visible in the clouds," said Ward.


When they are visible, even a good pair of binoculars will show Saturn's rings, and they are easily visible in almost any telescope. "We first saw them here at SM in the Spring of 1991, when Saturn was rising low in the southeast in the mornings. Even with a very small refractor, it was amazing to see the planet and its rings flickering in the morning twilight. I don't think anybody ever gets tired of seeing it. It is hard to believe that it is even real."

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