Thursday, December 31, 2009

Earthbound Views: Jupiter and Saturn

In contrast to Uranus and Neptune, Jupiter and Saturn make for easy viewing. On a good, dark night, even a quite modest telescope will reveal the planets’ belts. The use of colored filters can enhance bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Moreover, Jupiter rotates so fast (its day consumes a mere ten hours) that any details you see will perceptibly move across the planet’s face if you observe long enough. Its rapid rotation also makes the planet appear noticeably oblate (elongated). It is even possible to observe the near moons (like Io) emerging from behind Jupiter as they orbit. Although smaller and nearly twice as distant as Jupiter—and therefore appearing much smaller and dimmer than the larger planet—the sight of Saturn through a refractor of at least a 4-inch aperture or a reflector with at least a 6-inch aperture is thrilling. Expect to see the planetary disk and its belts and zones, as well as its celebrated rings (discussed later in this chapter). You may even catch a glimpse of the moons, including Titan, brightest and biggest of Saturn’s nine moons (which we will discuss in the next chapter). Titan’s atmospheric pressure is similar to Earth’s, although its composition and temperature are different. Titan is slightly larger in diameter than the planet Mercury.

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