In my spare time I enjoy amateur astronomy. It’s something I’d really recommend, since it’s cheap, and very rewarding. I use a telescope that cost only £50 when it was bought, and it’s given me views that I would say are worth far more. Craters scattered along the Moon’s terminator, the phases of Venus, the red tinge of Mars. Even to this telescope which can fit in a backpack, the Galilean moons of Jupiter are visible as beads of light. And with free software such as Stellarium, or even some websites, it’s easy to work out which bead is which.
My favourite target in our skies is Saturn. The rings are often credited as one of the solar system’s greatest natural wonders, but they are just one reason why Saturn is so appealing. I think Saturn provides something that the other worlds don’t. The moon is visually very close, even without help of telescopic eye. Mars and Venus are really close to Earth – Venus can only ever get 162 million miles away from us, and apart from the sun and moon, is the ordinarily the brightest thing in the sky. Mars can’t get any further away than 400 million kilometres, quite a bit further, but still something that will be visually close by through a telescope. Jupiter can get a lot further – almost a billion kilometres a way. But Jupiter is massive, and it’s moons so bright, that they are always visible. At its closest, it can out-shine Venus.
Saturn, however, can get almost double that distance away. When it’s on the other side of the sun, it’s 1.7 billion kilometres away. At this distance, it’s miniscule – Through my tiny telescope, you can only just make out the details, the eggshell sphere of the planet resting inside its ring. Occasionally, its moon Titan is visible, but you could easily miss it, mistaking it for a star lurking in the background. Saturn is the one planet which, when I look at it, I understand the scale of it all. Everything else is close enough, or large enough, that you could believe it to be relatively nearby. They all reflect so much light that they make some of the brightest points in the night sky. But Saturn, dimmed due to its vast distance from the sun, puts it all into perspective – these objects are so far away, that even when their diameters are ten times that of Earth, they are reduced to dull stars.
That’s why Saturn is the celestial body I find myself searching the sky for most regularly – it’s a reminder of just how far away everything is, when the inner and larger planets seem like they’re just out of arm’s reach.
But also, even over unimaginable distances, it’s still a beautiful sight, a ringed pearl and its tiny spark of a moon. It may not be as bright, but it’s still just as vibrant as any other world in our sky.