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Saturn, Lord of the Rings

By Jane Houston Jones
Published 2004-09-09 21:32:03

I named my trusty 12.5 inch f/5.75 Litebox travel telescope Strider years ago. Strider is the nickname of Aragorn, the 39th Heir of Isildur in the J. R. R Tolkein saga, Lord of the Rings. The wizard Gandalf called Aragorn "the greatest traveller and huntsman in this age of the world. Aragorn experienced many great adventures and travelled to many distant lands." I knew my Litebox travelscope would do the same, and would honor his namesake by hunting far-away celestial objects and traveling near and far.


Last night Strider and I set up on the corner of 24th and Noe Streets in San Francisco. It was a beautiful night. The air was cold, and because we were in-between winter storms, the seeing (much twinkling of stars indicates bad seeing and turbulent atmosphere) was spectacular and transparancy (sky darkness) was ok for the middle of a light polluted urban center. For four hours I showed hundreds of passersby Saturn, the Lord of the Rings. Mojo had his 14.5 inch f/4.8 Litebox reflector telescope aimed at Jupiter, using his 21 Lanthanum for 85x and progressing to a 2x barlow for 170x. Before Jupiter rose above the buildings, he showed a stunning view of Rupes Recta, the Straight Fault to our guests. Jorge joined us, and set up a C-5 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on the adjacent corner. He was showing Plato and other nearby lunar features.

I explained some facts about Saturn to the people in line in-between trips up the ladder to nudge the planet back to the center of the eyepiece. I told people Saturn reached opposition December 3. And that it is about 9.6 a.u., 1.4 billion km or 888 million miles from the sun. For ease of explanation, I usually told our visitors Saturn was about 800 million miles from earth. And that Saturn had a lot of moons - 18 to be exact last time I checked, but that only 6 or 7 were visible to most amateur astronomers through their back-yard based telescopes.

I explained about the rings made of ice and rock, the belts and zones on the planet are really cloud tops, that Saturn has a rocky core, a liquid metallic hydrogen layer, and a molecular hydrogen layer, and then let them loose at the eyepiece to see for themselves. The lines were never really long so each viewer got some of this explanation and heard other bits while waiting or viewing.

For sidewalk astronomy we use low to medium power so the objects don't move out of the field of view of our old fashioned (but very cool) telescopes too quickly. I was using my 16mm Nagler eyepiece for 125 times magnification most of the time.

Saturn, Lord of the Rings elicited the gasps of wonder, the oohs and aahs we all love to hear when showing people views through our telescopes. The brown South Equatorial Band was easy for everyone to see. The Cassini Division between the rings was so dark and clear it looked like train tracks circling the christmas tree. And 5 of the moons were easy to spot. In my reflector at 10:00 p.m. Saturn was aligned north to the right, south where most of the planet was visible to the left. East was up and west was down, and that was the orientation of the rings, nearly straight up and down in the eyepiece. The planet itself was a pretty sight, and it was encircled by moons. Like on the face of a clock, 9.8 mag Rhea illuminated the 12:00 spot. 8.1 mag Titan brightly shone at 3:00, and was clearly disc-like and appeared ruddy red. Mag 9.9 Tethys was between Titan and the ring, also at 3:00. Mimas was too faint and too close to the ring for us to see, even closer than Tethys. Continuing clockwise, mag 10.8 Iapetus at 4:30 and mag 10.1 Dione were clearly visible at 6:00. Rhea, Titan and Iapetus formed a straight line, from southeast to northwest. The other moons, Hyperion and Encedadas were too faint for the city view.

Being the holiday season, we had some interesting visitors. There were at least 4 Santas and a pair of inebriated elves who stopped for a look. There were plenty of children, grandparents, a few homeless men, and even two missionaries who stopped to see what we were offering in the large telescopes.

The Lord of the Rings, Saturn, never fails to make us stop and appreciate the wonders of our universe. I wish everyone one in the world could pause and take a look tonight.