May Sky: Clock of the Gods

Saturn, visible all night this month, is among the most beautiful of planets. But ancient observers saw it as a symbol of mortality.

By Corey S. Powell|Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Rich Talcott

With its jewel-like rings and golden hue, Saturn is the most beautiful of the planets — perhaps the most iconic object in all of science. Now is the ideal time to see the ringed planet, as it rises just before sunset and stays visible all night. 

A view through even a modest telescope elicits gasps of disbelief: Yes, it really looks like that. It is easy to find — just look to the southeast a few hours after twilight. Saturn hovers about one-third of the way from blue-white Spica (the brightest star in Virgo) on your right to ruddy Antares (the star at the heart of Scorpius, the scorpion) on your far left. 

Saturn is also, less famously, an icon of mortality. It takes 29.5 years to complete one orbit around the sun and one circle through Earth’s sky, by far the slowest motion of any naked-eye planet. Perhaps that is why the Roman god Saturn was associated not only with Cronus (his Greek equivalent) but also the phonetically similar Chronos (the personification of time). 

You can measure the epochs of your life by Saturn’s shifting position. If you are young and vigorous now, you might see it two more times in the same part of the sky near Spica. If you see it there a third time, you will be among the oldest people on the planet. Nobody alive today will witness Saturn’s fourth lap.

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