The giant planet Saturn huddles close to the Moon early tomorrow. They rise in the wee hours of the morning, and are well up in the east at first light. Saturn looks like a bright star to the left or lower left of the Moon.
If you look at Saturn through a telescope, you might be a little disappointed, because its rings look like they're barely there. They haven't gone away, they're just turned almost edge-on as seen from Earth.
Like Earth, Saturn tilts on its axis. When the poles dip toward the Sun, the rings are tilted, too, so we get the best view of them. But when neither pole dips toward the Sun -- at the planet's equinoxes -- the rings turn edge-on. They're as little as a few dozen feet thick, and they're hundreds of millions of miles away, so they all but disappear from view.
That's what happened back in early September, when Saturn appeared so close to the Sun that we couldn't see it. Now, though, as it moves away from the Sun, it's in better view. And the rings are just beginning to open up a little. But they're still pretty thin -- nothing at all like the grand displays we see in pictures.
Over the coming months, the rings will put on a better and better display. But they won't reach their most expansive view for about seven years.
For now, enjoy Saturn as it keeps company with the Moon. They're in good view in the east as twilight begins to paint the morning sky. We'll have more about Saturn and the Moon tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.