The end of June has spoiled us with a slew of celestial events that have allowed the night sky to give Netflix a run for its money. From the summer solstice, to a marathon of lengthy and gorgeous sunsets, we've had a lot of good reasons to look up lately. But on Weds, Jun. 27, you'll want to keep an eye out for something extraordinary: you'll be able to see Saturn in the night sky, because the planet will be "in opposition."
Sounds cool, but what does that mean — and how exactly will people be able to see Saturn? Scientifically speaking, opposition explains the formation when Earth is directly in between a superior planet (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and the sun. Aka, the planet opposes the sun, and so the planet becomes very easy to spot. To picture this, imagine placing a penny on the ground under the sun, and then standing in between the penny and the sun. In this instance, you are Saturn and the penny is Earth. Similarly, on Wednesday, Saturn will be at opposition, directly in between Earth and the sun, appearing brighter in the sky than any other night of the year. So if you've ever wanted to see Saturn, this is going to be your lucky chance.
According to Space.com, to find Saturn, you can start by looking for the sunset. Just before the sun actually starts to set, you'll notice Saturn rising in the east. At this point in the night, Saturn will just look like a very bright star. After midnight, Saturn will become the most visible, thanks to the contrast of the dark sky, and will remain visible until it sets in the west, just before the sun rises again. Saturn will be so bright that you'll still be able to see it standing out against the nearly full moon. That's pretty bright!
If you want to see Saturn's rings with detail, you'll need a medium strength telescope. With a telescope, you'll be able to see all of Saturn's rings super clearly, thanks to it's current tilted position towards the Earth. And, thanks to an opposition surge, also known as the Seeliger Effect, Saturn's rings will appear even brighter than the planet on the nights leading up to and after the opposition. Which technically means that if you have access to a telescope, Saturn's rings are going to be the most exciting part of this week's celestial entertainment.
But despite what you might assume, the reason why Saturn's rings will appear brighter is actually not due to Saturn's current orbital proximity to Earth. Rather, it's an illusion due to a geometric circumstance. Saturn's rings are not solid structures. The Seeliger Effect was named after German astronomer Hugo von Seeliger who discovered that Saturn's rings were actually made up of tons of reflective icy particles of all different sizes. He figured this out after observing the shadow of Saturn's rings on the days before and after the opposition. What he found was that the shadows were not visible when the sunlight hit them straight on, they only became visible again when the sunlight hit them from an angle. So the sunlight on the day before and after the opposition causes the particles in the rings to surge in brightness against the dimmer globe of the planet.
TL;DR? If you don't have a telescope, you'll be able to observe Saturn looking big and bright in the sky. If you do have a telescope, you'll be able to see Saturn's gas rings. And, if you find the time to observe the sky before and after the opposition, you'll be able to see Saturn's rings shining brighter than the planet itself. If that's not enough celestial excitement to keep you entertained, look forward to Thursday, when the full Strawberry Moon will rise in the bright summer sky — the combination of all of this epic starstuff ought to do the trick!