On the UK night of 6—7 July 2017, three weeks after the opposition of Saturn in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the ringed planet can be identified as the magnitude-zero ‘star’ highest in the southern UK sky around 11:40pm BST. As seen from the heart of the British Isles at this time, Saturn struggles to attain a peak altitude of just 14 degrees, or three-quarters of the span of an outstretched hand held at arm’s length above the horizon.
While there is a slim chance that you can confuse Saturn with first-magnitude Antares in the constellation of Scorpius that lies 14 degrees (or one-and-a-half spans of a fist held at arm’s length) to the right of the planet, the supergiant star is the fainter of the two and has a reddish-orange hue in binoculars and small telescopes.Returning to Saturn in a small telescope, the UK night of 6—7 July is ideal for spotting the ringed planet’s largest moon, Titan. This cloud-covered world some 3,200 miles in diameter looks just like a magnitude +9 star close to its greatest westerly elongation from Saturn, some 4½ ring diameters away. Titan orbits its parent planet every 16 days, so expect to see it a similar distance to the east of Saturn on 14 July.
As avid skywatchers will already know, all of the bright naked-eye planets are currently visible in the pre-dawn sky — the first time in eleven years that such an alignment has occurred. At 6am GMT on Monday, 1 February, the last quarter Moon in the constellation Libra lies just 2½ degrees from magnitude +0.8 planet Mars low in the south for UK observers.
Saturn’s 698-mile-wide moon Dione crosses the face of the giant planet in a phenomenon known as a transit. Transits play an important role in astronomy and can be used to study the orbits of planets and their atmospheres, both in our solar system and in others. By carefully observing and timing transits, scientists can more precisely determine the orbital parameters of planetary moons.