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May 11, 2014

Spaced-Out Challenge: Spectacular Saturn

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The Day The Earth Smiled (Saturn Eclipsing the Sun) by the Cassini Team (JPL/NASA)

Welcome again to the Spaced-Out Challenge! Whether you have a question about equipment, a new astronomical discovery you want to expand on, or just want to kick back and enjoy the cosmos above, come one come all on our weekly astronomical journey.

With Saturn at opposition yesterday, now is a great time to observe the crown jewel of the solar system with even a small telescope. This week, we'll point it out, along with elusive Mercury, and expand on smartphone astrophotography tips.

Spectacular Saturn


Amateur Jan Wera snapped this with her 9.25" Celestron and a webcam in 2007

Saturn is blazingly bright in the southern sky right now, cutting through even the worst light pollution your city could offer:


Saturn tonight, just before Midnight. The moon will skirt 4 degrees past it on Tuesday

Normally, Saturn is bright enough to pick out in urban skies, but it is even easier to spot in May as it outshines most of the stars in the sky: Antares and Spica, two bright voyagers in Spring and Summer, are dimmer right now. Saturn is currently hanging out in Libra, forming a rough line between Antares to it's south east and Spica to its northwest.

What can I see, CAC?

Your first crisp view of Saturn is a sight that will challenge and stick with you: my wife thought I was tricking her the first time she got a gander, insisting I was dangling a small toy somewhere within the telescope! Owners of binoculars, unless they are image-stabilized, won't get much beyond the color. Owners of 15x70 binoculars with solid tripods and exceptional seeing conditions can get a tease of it's wares. But Saturn's beauty rewards even the most lowly telescope owner. A 70mm telescope at medium power will show the rings. A 4” telescope will begin to reveal finer details, and an 8” dobsonian or bigger, with steady skies, will knock your socks off. Look for Saturn's biggest satellite, Titan, a world with liquid oceans of gasoline, on most nights and the distinct Cassini division in it's rings on exceptional nights.

How can I get a better view?

Well, beyond the instrument you use, magnification is critical, but practical magnification is limited by atmospheric conditions. “Seeing” and “transparency” are critical for really exceptional high-power views, and with the planet hanging around for several months and immune to even a bright full moon, there's no rush to pick out a perfect night for a perfect view. I use two forecasting websites that have yet to fail me: SkippySky and ClearDarkSky.

Imaging Saturn...with an iPhone?

Most amateur's first images of the ringed world leave a lot to be desired. The view is so incredible at the eyepiece, but when you hit that button on the phone, the above is what usually results. I'm still learning my way around the mount reviewed last week, but I have found a few things really helped to bring the rings out, even with sub-par eyepieces, on my iPhone. There's also a leg up the more fancy amateur systems have over my lowly dob.

Filters, filters, filters

A moon filter cuts down on the very glare that keeps the planet from coming into focus. A yellow planetary filter stacked atop will also bring out some faint surface details, even with the phone:

A smartphone mount

The Orion mount reviewed last week works solidly here, but there are a dozen varieties of smartphone mounts you can find on eBay and Google Shopping. The stability it offers the phone allows for easier focusing, and you are free to adjust the telescope's focus.

Video over still

Shooting video of the ringed planet was far less frustrating than the still shots. The phone only focused once during shooting, and the images you compile, once converted to an .avi file, can be stacked in a great little download called Registax.

Combining video with the filters and my mount, even the poor seeing conditions gave me a decent view of this majestic world:

For those with Photoshop on their computers, here's a great instructional video taking you through both Registrax and Pshop for improving even further:

Motorized mounts

Owners of computerized telescopes have a leg up with getting high-power views: unlike with my manual dob, no pushing is necessary to keep Saturn in the center of the field. This allows for longer video, which once stacked and cleaned up, can look like this:


Elusive Mercury in the Evening


Mercury is one of the brightest of the planets, but it's close proximity to the Sun leaves it within our home star's glow for much of the year. This week, however, try to sneak a peak after sunset. Wait about thirty minutes after the sun has dropped below the horizon, and immediately scan the sky about an outstretched-hands'-width above your Western horizon. It will be one of the first "stars" to appear, but don't wait too long- it will appear at it's brightest just ten degrees above the horizon and will rapidly descend into the twilight soon after.


The full Beginner's Buyer's Guide, our Comet Guide (featuring additional grab-and-go telescopes), and any other edition you're looking for can be found in the master index of all Spaced-Out Challenge threads here, but of course you can always inquire about binoculars, telescopes, and all the rest in the comments.
As always, if you have astrophotography, product recommendations, or astronomy news you'd like to see on a future Spaced-Out Challenge, email me at theoneandonlyfinn (at) gmail.com, or tweet me @conartcritic.

If you have any more questions about your new optics, feel free to ask below.
Until next time, clear skies to you, and keep looking up!

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posted by CAC at 08:07 PM

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