The Wao of Saturn

Cassini Image of Saturn from the orbit of Iapetus

Last night was the first night I went to bed before 2am in almost a week. It was 1:30.

I’ve tried recently to not let a clear night go by without doing some observing. That’s the price of being an amateur astronomer, heeding the call to a different kind of ocean from a different kind of siren. Observing is exhilarating, in a quiet and cranial sort of way, and even if I trudge out to my driveway tired, I seem to find a special reserve of energy and the time passes.

On Thursday night, I had my trusty 6″ newtonian…I should give it a name?…out and was trying to make my way through a fairly unsteady sky. My neighbors Charles and Linda walked by on a nighttime walk with their daughter Katie, back from college for a brief visit. Charles and Katie peeled off and headed my way, and asked if they could look through the scope. I turned to Saturn. It’s easy to find, still nursing under Leo, and it is always stunning.

Katie and Charles both had a look, and both were exclamatory. Saturn never fails. That’s why I call it the Wao of Saturn. It’s almost a mystical thing. Check out the photos being taken of Saturn by the Cassini space probe. Saturn is a trip of a place, filled with unlikely and mind-boggling geometries, whimsical alignments, beguiling colors and textures. Saturn, even through a small telescope, is a complex mini-solar system. People run out of words looking at Saturn. They often ask me for confirmation: “Is that real?” I’ve heard of dubious observers looking into the telescope to see if the astronomer has simply pasted an image of Saturn in there. That may be apocryphal but the disbelief is common enough.

And frankly, sometimes I’m stunned. Saturn is on average 762700000 miles from earth. Let’s put in the commas: 762,700,000…that’s 762 million miles. Driving in a (spaceworthy) car at 65 miles an hour, it would take you 1,339 years to reach Saturn.

So, the fact that you can see Saturn at all, let alone its rings, moons and sometimes even cloud details on the surface…it is jawdropping. Most casual observers don’t think about these things, and yet the sight of it still drops jaws.

On Sunday night, I brought my telescope to the country home of our local baker, Dustin Cutler. Again Saturn was the first target. About 10 people looked at it, including four kids ranging in age from three to five years. For several of the people gathered it was their first view through a telescope and their first view of Saturn. I did my job.

After that, I showed people several other “showpiece” objects…the globular cluster M13 in Hercules, the Ring, a planetary nebula in Lyra, that Van cat of the night sky, the double star Albireo in Cygnus, and finally M81 and M82 in Ursa Major, the constellation that the big dipper is actually a part of. Those are all beautiful objects, but I’ve noticed that the Wao of Saturn cranks up the expectation so high that the fainter, fuzzier things are a bit…underwhelming. Some context and description helps flesh them out in people’s minds–much of the power of observing rests on both aesthetics and context, and that takes a little more mental work.

Viewing Saturn in a telescope is the astronomical version of bungee jumping…and I suspect the Wao of Saturn is based on the release of dopamine in the brain.

I usually show Saturn first to “hook” people–but I think I’ll start saving it and build up to it. It’s a show-stopper!


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