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Saturn in the heart of the Milky Way


It’s been a good week for Otago sky watchers with a remarkable aurora australis last Saturday evening. The beams and colours of that display (which was visible as far north as Auckland!) will linger long in this stargazer’s memory.

This week, the moon was new just after midnight this morning (Thursday) which means that in the absence of moonlight, the next few nights will be just about perfect for astronomy. That’s great news, as it gives us a chance to study my favourite planet, Saturn, as it rises in the early evening eastern sky against the simply fabulous celestial backdrop that is the heart of the Milky Way.




As our chart shows, Saturn rises just after 8pm, and by 9pm it will be roughly fifteen degrees (one hand span at arm’s length) above the horizon. As the night goes on, the planet will rise higher in the sky, and by 4am it will reach its highest point, at which time it will be over sixty-six degrees above the horizon.

Despite being over a billion kilometres away from Earth, this week the sixth planet will be easy to spot, shining as a yellow-white ‘star’ directly below the distinctive constellation Scorpius.

Saturn is presently moving through the constellation Sagittarius, and if you have a pair of binoculars to hand, it’s definitely worth using them to scan the region of sky surrounding the planet. That’s because, as seen from Earth, Saturn is directly in line with the incredibly beautiful star clouds which collectively make up the core of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and, this spectacular galactic milieu is certainly worth exploring, especially during this dark of the moon period.

If you have a telescope, point it at Saturn. I never tire of seeing the planet’s stunning ring system, which is easy to see even in small telescopes. This week’s second image shows a photograph of Saturn I obtained using a relatively small telescope in my Portobello back garden.