Looking for an opportunity to get a good look at Saturn’s rings through a backyard view? What about just a good set of astronomy binoculars? There are certain times you are more likely to get a better view than others. Let’s investigate…how to see Saturn. Can you see Saturn’s ring with binoculars or must you have a telescope, and if so, what type?
When best to see Saturn and its rings
Your best chance of seeing good views of Saturn is when it is “in opposition.” As explained in our article on how to observe Jupiter, in opposition is when the three objects, in this case, Saturn, the Earth, and the sun, align, but more to the point, Earth is between Saturn and the Sun, hence why it is called in opposition.
The closer you are to this point, the easier it is to see Saturn, which is closer to and in alignment with the Earth as opposed to elsewhere in its orbit, at this time.
In 2020, this will be on 20 July. The next three Saturn oppositions will occur in the month of August in each of the years: 2021, 2022, and 2023.
The best time to be viewing planets is on a night without Moon illumination and particularly during clear conditions. And when the rings of Saturn are tilted somewhat…
Titling of Saturn’s rings
The rings of Saturn when “tilted” provide a better showing.
A series of Hubble Space Telescope images from 1996 to 2000 show Saturn’s rings opening up when viewed from Earth. This happens as Saturn moves towards winter in its northern hemisphere. Like us, Saturn is tilted in its rotation around the Sun and thus, has seasons.
Because Saturn takes much longer to travel around the Sun, seeing the rings edge-on from Earth happens only every 15 years, approximately. The next time should be in 2025, the previous 2010. Hence when in opposition next (July 20), the rings should be observable.
Earthlings cannot see Saturn’s rings when the rings are edge-on as viewed from the EarthNASA
You might like to join night sky parties and make it a social event. On NASA’s Night Sky Network you’ll find the many clubs in the US where you can investigate this.
About seeing Saturn for yourself?
You might think this tricky, given how far away Saturn is (roughly 843.33 million miles, if you’re curious). How to see Saturn? One of the natural questions people who are interested ask are – “Can I see Saturn with binoculars?”
To answer that question, let’s first take a closer look at the planet itself and its rings, and then go through using binoculars or telescopes to spot this titan of the astronomy world.
How many rings does Saturn have?
Saturn has 7 rings (per NASA).
These rings are ice types unlike the dust ones of Jupiter. They comprise mostly ice and rocks, the crushed debris of countless celestial bodies that have entered and been destroyed on entry to Saturn’s orbit due to immense pressure from the planet’s huge gravitational force. The size of the particles in the rings ranges from dust-sized icy bits to chunks the size of a house.
Re the oh-so-famous rings…
Galileo was the first to see them back in 1610, though with his weaker telescope it looked more like they were attached. It was the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655 who first proposed that they were individualized flat rings.
The remnants of former moons, asteroids, comets, ice features, and other celestial bodies all form different layers of different rings, hence the different colors.
The largest ring is 7,000x the size of the planet itself. Overall, the rings are relatively thin, typically only around 9 m thick, though some formations within them can reach up to two miles high.
More mundane than the mythological naming system used to name the planets and moons themselves, Saturn’s main rings are simply named (from innermost to outermost) C, B, and A. Another is D, which is closest to the planet, but incredibly faint.
Needless to say, when you try to see Saturn with binoculars, you won’t see D.
But can you see any rings or Saturn itself with binoculars?
Can you see Saturn’s rings with binoculars?
The best thing about using binoculars is, of course, that they are inexpensive. Telescopes don’t have to cost a fortune, but the best ones – and certainly those which would give you the best chance of seeing Saturn’s rings from home or even out in the country – don’t come inexpensive.
Binoculars are also easy to use. If you have ever used binoculars before, you know how difficult it can be to point and move them to get them into proper position. What is more, you have to do a lot of caretaking to make sure that the sensitive lens, mirrors, and internal workings remain in good condition.
Binoculars are also extremely mobile. With a telescope, you need to mount it in position and make sure that everything is in perfect balance. There are no such problems with binoculars, and you certainly don’t require a tripod to keep everything balanced.
The good news here is that, yes, you can see Saturn with binoculars. It is a big enough feature in our night sky that – making use of star charts, knowing where it is in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere (according to your location), and finding an appropriately dark and elevated location – Saturn’s beauty should be visible.
Are the rings of Saturn visible?
Saturn’s rings aren’t visible to the naked eye, but you can detect them through a telescope and better still through a larger telescope. Are they visible through binoculars?
The typical binoculars are 8x magnification. With this, you might see the rings as part of the disc shape of how Saturn will appear. The trick is keeping the binoculars steady.
Don’t expect to see Saturn’s rings distinctly through binoculars. But you might be able to make out its largest moon, Titan.
How to see Saturn
For a good telescope to view planets check out my guide including reviews of some popular types as well as the Dobsonian 6″ or 8″ reflector. If you want to know the difference between a refractor and a reflector telescope, see my article comparing the two.
What does Saturn look like through binoculars?
You should be able to pick out its rich golden color and bulges at the sides which will be what you’ll be able to make of the rings. You’ll see this more so when the rings are open to us on Earth (as depicted by the above image).
While you can always try, with binoculars, you probably won’t see Saturn’s most attractive feature, its glorious rings. Typical home binoculars are not powerful enough.
For best results when using binoculars, stabilize them on a tripod or other means.
When stargazing, no matter how, always allow your eyes to adjust to fully dark-adapted for at least half an hour before you intend looking. If you do need to use a light, make sure it has a red lens or covered with an opaque red wrapping.
With the typical binoculars, Saturn will appear just like a bright star. Even a pair of 10×50 binoculars won’t be good enough. You may see the moons as small bright points of light beside it – or at least the largest one, Titan.
A good set of astronomy binoculars with high power may be a different story. We’re looking at 20×60 or higher to discern the rings beyond being “handles” of Saturn. But like I mentioned above, the problem is handheld observation is problematic because of vibration.
What magnification do I need to see the rings of Saturn?
According to veteran observer Alan MacRobert at SkyandTelescope.com…
Saturn’s rings should be visible in even the smallest telescope at a magnification of 25 times. A good 3-inch scope at 50x magnification will show the rings as distinctly separate from the ball of the planet.
So, the good news: An inexpensive telescope, one at least with 25x magnification should be enough to see the rings. Increasing magnification will show more detail within the rings and with 50x magnification, you should see more separation between the rings and the rings and the planet itself. But, the better the telescope, the better the view!
But, at the end of the day, the quality of the optics, the dust in the atmosphere, optical coatings, and filters you use will make the difference.
The original story’s influence is also present in Saturn’s moons, of which there are 82 at the time of writing (per NASA). The largest of Saturn’s moons is named, appropriately enough, Titan.
More Saturn Facts
If you know your Greek mythology, chances are you know Cronos (or “Saturn,” as the Romans renamed him) as one of the earlier figures. He is a Titan, a father to many of the Olympians, including Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.
He wasn’t a model father since he had a habit of swallowing his sons. Until, with the birth of his youngest son, he was tricked into swallowing a stone instead. This son, Zeus, replaced his father as king of the cosmos and at the same time, forced him to free his siblings.
“Swallowing stones” can be likened to the formation of the Saturn. The beautiful rings originated from orbiting bodies that were crushed and drawn in, or “swallowed up” by the planet’s gravitational force.
While that’s good enough to make Saturn the second-largest planet next to Jupiter (appropriate if you remember the Jupiter/Zeus Cronos/Saturn connection), Saturn is the least dense of all the planets in the solar system, and the only one that is actually less dense than water molecules.
Saturn’s surface is “ringed” with incredibly fast winds that can reach as high as 1,100 mph. Heat rises from the interior of the gas giant as well. The planet rotates quicker than Earth, completing a rotation once every 10.5 Earth hours. This fast rotation also means the center of the planet bulges.
Saturn is by far one of the most interesting features in our solar system, and can be seen with binoculars. To see its mighty rings you need the right magnification. However, it is well worth the cost, as those rings and the planet itself represent a truly titanic force in our stargazing imaginations.