Reaching Out to Saturn

Two nights ago I was up later than usual, and so I was especially exhausted as I stumbled into bed. I was ready to fall asleep, but even without my glasses I could see a smudge of light through my window. Intrigued, I put on my glasses and saw not one but two shimmering points that hovered near each other over the shadowed tree in the neighbor’s garden. One was brighter than the other, and I suspected that the brighter was Jupiter. Reaching for my telescope, I pointed the barrel at the brighter point and indeed saw the glowing disk of Jupiter, accompanied by four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). They were all relatively close to the disk of Jupiter, so they were often smudged out of view by the glare of light reflected by Jupiter’s clouds.

I thought that the other object was a star, but was overjoyed to instead see the ringed planet. Looking like a tiny, cosmic eye with the rings framing a central disk, Saturn was even more silent than Jupiter. I truly sensed the immense distance that lay between myself and the planet, now without any human-made satellites after Cassini’s plunge into the Saturnian sky. It was now entirely its own, simultaneously immense and insignificant against the backdrop of a more distant space; a puddle of cream against a deep black.

That first night I decided to take no photos and to let the memory burn as it was. The next day, after telling my father of the experience, he urged me to record it that night. Once again, I was working later than usual, but I now expected that around midnight I should see the two planets. Around 11:00PM, clouds were gathering, a surely depressing sign for any sky-gazer. But at 12:30AM, I could barely make Saturn out and decided to try taking photos. My first few photos were bright and blurry, and Saturn was quite small with the lens I was using.

Changing the contrast, I took another set of photos:

Saturn was beginning to emerge, though nothing could compare to the subtle coloration which one can make out with the naked eye, even at this magnification. The view of future voyagers to Saturn will be incredibly complex, with delicate variations in blue, green, cream, and white, both on the rings and the clouds. Next, I tried to use a lens with higher magnification:

Among these, my favorites were taken:

These two images are sensitive to subtle differences in coloration between the disk and rings themselves. The disk is slightly cream-colored, while the rings are a paler blue. The gap between the planet and rings is also visible. The sharpest image, which came with my highest magnification lens, was not the best since I was actively trying to keep my phone steady while following a planet which, at that magnification, appeared to race across the sky.

In this image, very slight variations in shading are visible on the lower left of Saturn’s disk, although the colors here are fairly homogenous.

Tonight I hope to take better photos with the highest magnification lens, which is certainly a challenge, but the opportunity to come this close to Saturn, with my phone’s camera lens bathed in photons which touched the Saturnian rings and atmosphere but an hour earlier, is an experience unsurpassed in its poetic majesty and beauty.

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Romy Aran

I’m a student investigating the complexities of the cosmos and of our society, two facets of reality shaping our understanding of the universe.