How to See Saturn Through A Telescope

Seeing the planet Saturn through a telescope is one of the biggest pleasures available to backyard astronomers.

If you own a scope of 6 inches or smaller, then keep reading to learn how to find the ringed planet and what you should aim to observe when you do.

nasa picture of saturn
Saturn, 17x larger than Earth, but much less dense (NASA)

Saturn is the second-largest planet in our solar system. It is slightly squashed and has a polar diameter of 67,560 miles (108,728 km), and an equatorial diameter of 74,898 miles (120,536 km).

In comparison, Earth’s diameter is only 3,963 miles (6,378 km), making Saturn more than 17 times bigger!

While its mass is 95 times that of earth’s, Saturn’s density is only 0.69 g/cm3. Water has a density of 1 g/cm3 so Saturn would float if there was a water body big enough to hold it.

Even though Saturn’s average distance from the Sun is 890,424,928 miles (1,433,000,000 km), its large diameter means it’s big enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye. Saturn’s angular diameter ranges from 14.5″ to 20.1″, depending on how close to us it is.

Learn more about degrees, arcminutes, and arcseconds

The magnitude of Saturn’s disk varies from a dim +1.5 to a bright -0.2. If you take the rings into account, the magnitude varies from a faint +1.17 when the rings are the least inclined to a bright -0.55 when the rings are most inclined. We’ll talk more about that later in the article.

When Is Saturn Visible?

The ringed gas giant is visible for most of 2021, other than January and February when it is too close to the Sun to be seen.

When it returns to darker skies, the ringed planet is visible in the morning before sunrise. Look for it in the east, always close to Jupiter – which is the brighter of the two planets.

In March, we can expect to see the planet 10° above the southeast horizon an hour before sunrise. The views improve as the year progresses. At 5am in June, for example, Saturn is at its highest, some 33° over the horizon.

Opposition comes on 02 August. This is when Saturn is at its closest to us, so looks great in a telescope, and is visible all night long.

The ringed planet finishes the year as an evening apparition, highest in the sky at 8pm in October. By December, we can see Saturn 22° over the southwest horizon an hour after sunset.

To find out more detail on when Saturn is visible, check out our detailed guide to when the planets are visible this year.

How To Find Saturn In A Telescope

2021 is a good year for Saturn-spotting, especially late summer and fall when the planet’s disc will be at its largest and brightest.

Here’s our guide to getting the best from Saturn in your telescope this year.

Step 1 – Is Saturn in the Night Sky Tonight?

Like most celestial objects, Saturn spends part of the time unobservable because it is below the horizon during the hours of darkness, or above the horizon during daylight. This happens in January and February this year and, other than that, we can see Saturn during darkness.

In 2021, the planet is visible in mornings from March to June, all night in July and August, and evenings from September until the end of the year.

For month-by-month details on where to find Saturn, check out our guide to finding the planets. In terms of where to look, well, Saturn spends the whole year in the constellation of Capricornus. The SkySafari 6 image below shows its path in 2021.

Saturn's path across Capricorn in 2021
Saturn’s path in 2021 (click for full-screen)

Keep in mind that this is an idealized image, there is no Sun or horizon shown, just stars to magnitude 5.0.

For a more detailed look at where to find the planet for your location at the time you will be observing, refer to night sky software. A free version, like Stellarium, will show you where to look, as will paid software like SkySafari 6.

Once you know that Saturn is visible and where to look, we need to find it.

Step 2 – Finding Saturn Without a Telescope

As we said earlier, Saturn is big and bright. It’s the fifth brightest object in the sky after the Moon, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury.

Start your viewing adventure by finding Saturn with your naked eyes, using the compass direction and the angle above the horizon provided by your map/software.

Remember, the horizon is 0°, the zenith (directly overhead) is at 90°, and midway between the two is 45°. If you’re not sure about angles, these hand shapes make it easier.

If you look in roughly the right place, Saturn will always be one of the brighter ‘stars’ you can see. It shines with a pale yellow color, and pointing even a small telescope at it will confirm – without a doubt – that you’ve found the right object, as we shall see below.

Step 3 – Finding Saturn with a Small Telescope

Now we turn to the good bit: seeing this gas giant through your telescope.

Although the planet will tolerate a good deal of magnification, it’s best to start with lower levels and increase your zoom from there. This increases the field of view which makes it easy to get the planet in your sights.

Assuming you have correctly set up your finderscope, all you do to get Saturn in view is center it on the bright ‘star’ you identified in step 2.

A glimpse in your eyepiece will quickly show whether you have a planet in view. Unlike stars, which all stay as tiny pinpricks of light, Saturn has a distinct, solid shape.

Expect to see a flattened disc with two ear-like protrusions, one on either side of the disc. These protrusions are Saturn’s rings, which are 2.25 times as wide as Saturn’s disc.

Move your focuser to get the planet and rings in sharp focus and catch yourself gasping in awe at the majesty of this stunning, otherworldly planet.

If you’re not quite sure what to expect, or you’d like more confidence that you’ve found the right thing, this website has some simulated images of what Saturn looks like through different telescope sizes.

Targets to Look For When Observing Saturn With a Small Telescope

Now you have Saturn in the eyepiece of your small telescope, what should you be looking at?

Saturn has three great targets for small telescope observation. The first is Saturn’s rings. Secondly, there is Saturn’s moon Titan, which is the largest of Saturn’s many moons and, finally, seeing any surface features on the planet itself.

We’ve given you more detail and resources for each below.

Target 1: How to See Saturn’s Rings

The feature for which Saturn is best known, her rings, are easy enough to see with the smallest of scopes. Even a 50mm diameter pair of binoculars will do the job if the sky is clear and dark.

Saturn orbits the Sun every 29.4 earth years and has an axial tilt of 27 degrees. The result of this is that the angle at which we see the rings changes over time in a cycle lasting about 15 years.

Our more detailed guide to observing the rings of Saturn

During that 15 year cycle, an earth-based observer will see a gradual shift from looking at the top of the rings to looking at the rings edge-on to looking at the bottom of the rings. This page includes an illustration of the changing orientation of Saturn’s rings between 1996 and 2000.

Seeing the rings now, when they are not far past their maximum tilt, is not a problem – they are quite unmistakable. The challenge to set yourself is seeing if you can distinguish different colorations in the bands.

In a slightly larger scope, with good seeing, you may be able to identify the broad color difference between the lighter, inner ‘B’ ring and the darker, outer ‘A’ ring.

Spot the difference in brightness between A and B rings (source)

Target 2: How to See Saturn’s Moon Titan

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon. At over 5,000 km across, Titan is more than 3 times larger than the next largest moons of Saturn, and it’s larger than Pluto, Earth’s moon, and Mercury!

Even though Titan is far away, it’s large size means it’s a fairly bright and easy telescope target. This orange-brown target shines with a magnitude between 8.2 and 9.0 and orbits Saturn every 15 days.

Sky Safari, Stellarium, and this free resource from Sky & Telescope Magazine all show you Titan’s position relative to Saturn and it’s other large moons.

You may be surprised by how far apart Saturn and Titan are. Of Saturn’s 7 largest moons, 5 are closer to Saturn than Titan. If you are viewing from a sufficiently clear dark site, you may be able to see some of Saturn’s inner moons, as detailed in our article on Saturn’s moons.

Color image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan (source)

Target 3: How to See Surface Features on Saturn

Just like Jupiter, Saturn has surface bands and experiences regular storms.

However, unlike Jupiter, we can’t see these in any detail from a smaller scope in our backyard.

The best we can hope for – and this is a challenge in itself – is noting changes in shading on the planet’s surface. This will push your telescope and seeing skills hard. Use averted vision, and you might just see subtle shading across the surface of Saturn.

It may also help to use a telescope filter. Numbers 38A (dark blue) and 80A (blue), could help tease out more detail.

Don’t worry too much if not, this last target may be too much for your scope and/or conditions.

Summary

Saturn is the second-largest planet in our solar system and its rings make it an enticing target for backyard astronomers.

Observing the changing aspect of the rings and Saturn’s largest moon Titan brings an additional challenge to the sheer joy of seeing this unique planet.


Written by Tanya C. Forde