More importantly, opposition represents Earth's nearest approach to Saturn of this year. Granted, that's not very near; we're still about 755 million miles away, after all. Saturn is now more than eight times farther from Earth than we are from the sun. But Saturn is huge, about 10 times the size of the Earth. So it shows up nicely even in small backyard telescopes.
And that's the best part about Saturn. It's a truism in amateur astronomy that everyone's first look at Saturn through a telescope is a thrill. It is a beautiful planet, and its prominent and iconic ring system is immediately identifiable. And first-timers invariably react with a gasp, a "Wow!," or disbelief. Baltimore's first "streetcorner astronomer," Herman Heyn, has been accused by his customers of slipping a NASA slide into his 'scope. No way. It's the real deal, and it is really "up there." And there's a bonus, he says: "The little 'star' always near Saturn is Titan, its largest moon."
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been circling Saturn and snapping pictures of the planet, its ring system and its moons more than a year and a half. Here's the mission's Web site, with lots of great images. They're your tax dollars at play, so have a look.
You can see Saturn with the naked eye, too, of course, on any clear night this winter. Even in urban skies, it is a fairly bright, yellowish star-like object. You can find it a couple of hours after sunset, above the eastern horizon, directly below a pair of stars called Castor and Pollux. They're all to the left of the familiar winter constellation Orion, recognizable by its "belt" of three stars lined up in a row. Here's a star map.
If you don't have a telescope, or a neighbor with one, look for Heyn or Darryl Mason at Harborplace, or Fells Point. Or visit one of the area's observatories during one of their open nights.
For information, call these numbers or visit these Websites:
Anne Arundel Community College; second Saturday of each month. 410 777-1820.
Maryland Space Grant Observatory (at Johns Hopkins): Fridays at dusk. 410 516-6525 or click here.
Maryland Science Center: Fridays at 5:30 p.m.; 410 545-2999 or click here.
University of Maryland Baltimore County: first Thursday of each month. Click here.
University of Maryland Observatory, College Park: 5th and 20th of each month. Click here.
Herman Heyn: "Weather permitting, and mainly on week-end nights (Fri., Sat., Sun.), I will be set up at Harborplace. By next weekend (early February), Saturn should be high enough to view from there by 7PM. Look for me near the Amphitheater. If I'm not there, I'll be down the Promenade toward or a little beyond Phillips restaurant. Again, it's always "weather permitting"! Everybody who sees Saturn through my scope gets a yellow 'I Saw Saturn...from Harborplace, Baltimore, Maryland' souvenir stickee. In case people want to be sure I'll be there on a particular night, they can call 410-889-0460."
Darryl Mason (Baltimore's "other" streetcorner astronomer): "I will be at Fells Point Monday Jan. 30 and Friday Feb 2, 2006." Look for him at the south end of the square, near Thames Street.
Saturn will be visible and prominent for weeks to come. But tonight is the very best time to look.