Saturn is at its best for the entire year right now. The second-largest planet in the solar system rises around sunset and is in view all night. And it shines at its most brilliant. It looks like a bright golden star. It’s low in the southeast as night falls, arcs across the south during the night, and is in the southwest at first light. The brighter planet Jupiter follows well behind it — getting ready to stage its best display in a few weeks.
Saturn is putting on such a good show because it’s at opposition. That means it lines up opposite the Sun in our sky. It can do so because it’s a superior planet. That’s not a judgement of its character or beauty — although its rings do make it a beautiful sight. Instead, it’s an indication of Saturn’s place in the solar system.
Superior planets are farther from the Sun than Earth is — almost 800 million miles farther, in the case of Saturn. So as Saturn and Earth orbit the Sun, we see Saturn at different angles relative to the Sun. It can pass behind the Sun, huddle close to it, or appear as far from the Sun as an object can get — 180 degrees away — all the way across the sky.
It takes about 12 and a half months for Saturn to move from one opposition to the next. So next year’s opposition will be in the middle of August, not at the beginning — when the “superior” planet Saturn will once again appear at its best.
We’ll have more about Saturn later in the week.
Script by Damond Benningfield