Saturn is one of our favorite planets in the Solar System to watch through a telescope. It’s rings and colors make such a unique and iconic figure in the sky. It is no surprise one of the first questions people ask themselves when trying to get into stargazing is if they can see Saturn with a telescope and what kind of equipment will they need to get the best view.
The short answer to the question is yes. It is possible to see Saturn with a telescope. There are however a few more things you may want to consider first before going out and buying any type of scope.
What kind of power does a telescope need to see Saturn’s rings?
When it comes to telescopes the main feature you should be looking for to get a good view of the planets in the Solar System is the aperture.
The aperture is in simple terms the diameter of the lens your telescope uses to capture light. It is usually given in millimeters
and goes from 60mm (2.3”) in kids telescopes to 630mm (25“) in the biggest “off the shelf” telescopes that are available. Of course, observatory telescopes are even bigger than, but let’s leave those out for now.
If you want to clearly observe Saturn’s rings the minimum aperture you want to look for is 100m (4”).
This level of aperture can be found in most entry-level hobbyist telescopes so almost any product from a reputable company like Orion or Celestron will do just fine.
These 100mm telescopes, however, will not give you a great level of detail when you look at the planet. The rings will be recognizable but you won’t get much detail and will only get one or two recognizable colors.
If you want to go one step further and really catch some of the beautiful details Saturn has to offer, we’d recommend going to the 150mm range (6”). While some of these can start getting expensive, they’ll give you a better view, a bit more color, and details.
If your objective is to look at planets, anything beyond that range isn’t really necessary for a beginner looking to buy their first telescope. Telescopes over 150mm jump a lot in price and you will be spending some serious money for one. But hey, if you have the cash and you want to go for it, the 200mm (8”) telescopes are wonderful beasts.
The following composite image shows a comparison of how you can expect Saturn to look at different aperture ranges. This is a simplification as it doesn’t take other variables into account like magnification and the distance between Earth and Saturn but it will give you an idea.
Refracting vs Newtonian telescopes
When shopping for a telescope to watch planets you will find many types to choose from. All these choices and information can be overwhelming so let us save you some time. For the purpose of observing planets as a hobbyist, go with a Newtonian telescope.
Newtonian telescopes (sometimes also referred to as reflecting telescopes) are generally better priced and have a bigger aperture than their refracting counterparts.
If you want to get into the details, we have a whole article explaining the pros and cons of every type of telescope.
How many of Saturn’s moons can you see with a telescope?
On top of its rings, Saturn also has a lot of moons. So far 62 moons have been confirmed and named with a few more suspects that still need further observation.
Most of these moons are too small to see without high-tech equipment or orbital telescopes, but we are not completely out of luck.
Under the right sky conditions, a 150mm (6”) telescope can capture up to seven of Saturn’s moons. In order of magnitude (brightness), these are Mimas, Enceladus, Iapetus, Thetys, Dione, Rhea, and the biggest of Saturn’s moons, Titan.
These moons are not always visible as sometimes they can be hidden behind the gas giant that is their planet, or Saturn’s orbit can be at a far away point in relation to Earth’s. Some planning is usually necessary if you want to catch them and take a good look at them.
Speaking of planning the best moment to view Saturn.
Saturn’s orbit is way bigger than Earth’s. It takes the planet almost 29 and a half years to complete just one revolution around the Sun.
That means that for a few months throughout the year, Saturn is located on the other side of the Sun from us, hiding. During this time it is not possible to view Saturn at night.
The rest of the time, when it is visible in the night sky, Saturn is pretty easy to find. Its location changes depending on the position of Earth, but it can usually be found close to the Saggitarius or Scorpius constellations.
The details change depending on the month, but a great tool we like to use to check out the planet’s positions in the sky is the astronomy tool on timeanddate.com. Just select the planet you want to observe and it will give you a map of where it is right now and what direction it will follow across the sky. The tool will give you the cardinal direction you want to be looking at (NorthWest, South, etc.) If you have trouble figuring that out, simply download a compass app on your phone.
It is important to note that in order to have the best viewing experience, the conditions of your location matter. First, there’s the issue of light pollution. Being in a big city can be detrimental to stargazing as the sky is too bright and this distorts the quality image you get.
The second factor is the weather. A clear, cloudless sky is always the preferred kind of night for astronomers. Even a little bit of rain or fog can quickly ruin a meteor shower.
Finally, there’s the matter of the planets orbit, both Saturn’s and Earth’s. You will always get a better view of Saturn when both orbits are at their closest points. While Saturn is visible a good portion of the year, there are always a few weeks when you can get the best view on it. Again, there are apps that will let you know when this is going to happen so you can be ready with your telescope and camera. If you want to take a few photos of it, check out our guide on how to take photos with a telescope.
Can you see Saturn without a telescope?
Even though Saturn is very far away from us, it might surprise you to find out you can sometimes watch it even without help from optic devices. Just go out, look at the sky and you might find it.
Saturn is the last and faintest of the denominated bright planets. That means the planets that can be sometimes seen with the naked eye.
Because it is the last one though, the conditions usually have to be great for it to appear and it might be difficult to differentiate it from a star.
The downside of this approach, of course, is that you will not be able to distinguish its rings or look at it with the level of detail you’d get with a telescope. It simply looks like another dot in the night sky.