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Moon and Saturn

December 18, 2014

A bare wisp of a crescent Moon shines down on the planet Saturn at dawn tomorrow. Saturn is close to the lower left of the Moon, and looks like a bright golden star.

If you remove its beautiful rings, Saturn itself looks a bit bland — like a slightly flattened beachball colored in bands of yellow, tan and white. The bands are formed by clouds. Saturn is a big ball of gas that spins rapidly, so the clouds are stretched into bands that completely encircle the planet.

If you look at those bands more closely, though, Saturn takes on a painterly appearance, like the works of a great Impressionist. Waves form at the boundaries between bands, spinning off whorls and eddies that are as big as continents.

Giant storms sometimes bubble up from deep within Saturn’s atmosphere. These giant blobs are quickly sheared apart by the planet’s rotation. As they spread they form waves and swirls that look a bit like cream swirling into a cup of hot coffee.

And Saturn’s poles are among the most amazing views of all. The cloud bands around them form hexagons — the result of standing waves that slosh around the planet. And the poles themselves form vortexes, with splashes of white clouds floating atop them — brilliant splashes that crown Saturn’s subtle beauty.

Again, look for the bright planet Saturn just below the Moon tomorrow, beginning a couple of hours before sunrise.

Tomorrow: Taming some of Saturn’s small moons.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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