When the planets align, according to some lore, the Universe opens up its mighty powers to humans to harness for themselves, if only we knew how.
One of these special, celestial moments will occur soon — an alignment between Earth, Saturn, and the Sun known as the moment Saturn is in “opposition.” And while it won’t open a portal to the Titan realm, it will give us the best view possible of the Solar System’s most beautiful planet.
When Saturn is visible at night
Saturn is the Solar System’s second-largest planet. It is famous for its signature rings, which astronomers believe are made from the shards of comets, asteroids, and old moons.
Saturn is named after the Titan father of the Roman god Jupiter, but while the planet has been recognized in the night sky for millennia, it was only observed by telescope for the first time in the last 500 years, by Galileo in 1610.
Saturn is visible in the night sky from July through December, but certain points in time are better than others to view this stunning planet. In 2021, Saturn will prime for one of these points — the moment in opposition — in early August.
What being “in opposition” means for Saturn
When a planet is in opposition, it means that it is at its closest point to Earth and directly opposite the Sun.
This arrangement creates a moment of astronomical harmony, in which the planet (in this case, Saturn), the Earth, and the Sun are perfectly in line. At the same time, the proximity of the planet to Earth means that, in most cases, the planet appears as bright as it will ever be in the night sky.
Only planets further out from Earth in the Solar System — Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — come into opposition. This is because opposition only occurs when the more distant planet is at its closest point to the Sun while also aligning with the Earth.
Most of the planets will move into opposition at least once per year, but for Mars, the closest planet to Earth that is more distant to the Sun, opposition occurs only once every two years. Mars last went into opposition in October 2020, and it will next be at opposition in December 2022.
When Saturn will be in opposition
Saturn will be visible in the night sky from within the constellation Capricornus on Monday, August 2.
The planet will be at its most bright in the night sky from 9:15 p.m. to 4:53 a.m. Eastern.
It will reach peak opposition — the moment of perfect alignment — at 2:00 a.m. Eastern.
Saturn will appear as a golden glimmer in the southeastern sky. The ringed planet is at its closest to Earth in the five hours following opposition.
Here’s when some of our other gas giants are in opposition in 2021:
- Jupiter: August 19 at 8:20 p.m. Eastern
- Neptune: September 14 at 5:12 a.m. Eastern
- Uranus: November 4 at 7:49 p.m. Eastern
How to see Saturn in opposition
In 2020, the once-in-a-millennia conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter graced our skies, with the two gas giants appearing as gleaming orbs in close proximity.
With Saturn at opposition, the two planets will appear close in the night sky once more, although not quite as spectacularly. But the proximity does mean that Jupiter and the Moon can help you triangulate Saturn. Now, Saturn is the star of this celestial show, but Jupiter is still technically the brightest starlike object in the night sky (once Venus sets below the Western horizon, that is). So once you spot Jupiter, aka the brightest “star,” then Saturn will appear due west.
To the naked eye, Saturn will look like a bright, yellowish orb. All you need is a clear sky and to be in an area as free of light pollution as possible. Out in the desert, sailing on the open ocean, or on a mountaintop would be ideal, but you could also try a roof deck, a high balcony, or another safe viewing spot.
But remember: Even if you miss Saturn at opposition, the planet will be visible in the night sky through December.
How to see Saturn’s rings and moons
One of the reasons Saturn is so majestic is the planet’s rings, but seeing these from our planet is a little more tricky. To the naked eye, one can see a mere suggestion of them. Next to the bright orb of Jupiter, Saturn appears a bit more oblong and squashed. While you can’t make out its defined rings, you can see a vague shape.
You will need a telescope if you want to see the planet’s incredible rings. Through a telescope, the rings appear as a flat gray circle hugging the gas giant. With a powerful enough lens, you can even make out the space between the planet and this defining feature.
According to some stargazing sites, a small telescope with an aperture between 4 inches and 14 inches and 25x power will suffice if you want to see the iconic rings and the planet’s largest moon, which is fittingly named Titan.
Viewing Saturn through a special filter like a variable polarizing filter can also enhance some of the planet’s colors, though filters work best with telescopes that have at least an 8-inch aperture.
When will Saturn next be in opposition?
If you’re already gearing up for Saturn in opposition in 2022, the planet will return to this celestial point of importance on Sunday, August 14, and be at perfect opposition at 1:02 p.m. Eastern.
The opposition doesn’t occur at the same time each year. Rather, the date usually moves about two weeks later on an annual basis because of Earth’s relatively fast orbit — 18 miles per second — compared to the ringed planet’s orbit of 6 miles per second.