Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Worlds

We arrived home a few hours after sunset, and I commenced unloading luggage and tools. Glancing upwards - now a fixed habit - I found the sky pretty clear, even with waxing moon grown near to full. The constellation Leo was pretty high in the sky, well clear of our garden wall, and Saturn blazed a few degrees below the Lion's head. Exactly the opportunity I've been awaiting for two whole months... bags and boxes were dropped on the spot, and my shiny new reflecting telescope (focal length 500mm, aperture 150mm) deployed.

A sketch of Saturn as I first saw it

After one or two false starts, I got my finder lined up nicely, placed my right pupil carefully before the main eyepiece, and gasped. Even with the lowest-power eyepiece inserted, both the disc of the great gas giant and its magnificent rings were clearly visible; I even thought that I saw a faint band in its atmosphere. Close observation revealed a faint point of light quite close to the planet - confirmed, after a quick glance at my star atlas, as Saturn's moon, Titan!

Further observation did nothing to diminish the wonder of seeing clearly this solar system in miniature, at a distance of nearly 1 billion kilometres. I am convinced now that rings are really almost an essential accessory for any planet wishing to attract my attention - those, and large, fast-orbiting moons. And what a moon Titan is! Half as big again as Earth's companion, it has a nice thick atmosphere and plenty of water (ice). The mind boggles at the view any inhabitants would have of the giant they orbit... how cosmically unfortunate, then, that on Titan, the freezing clouds never clear. I can sympathize.