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Saturn reaches opposition — how to view the planet at its best

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you've got some free time this evening, we have a suggestion for something you might want to do as the sun sets. Go outside or on your deck or your terrace, as the case may be, and glance up at the night sky. If you do, you'll be able to see a very special phenomenon. The planet Saturn - yes, that's the one with the rings - will look bigger and brighter than at any other time of the year.

JACKIE FAHERTY: I am a very big fan of the planet Saturn. I love it. I think it's a gorgeous planet.

MARTIN: That's Jackie Faherty. She is an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History based in New York City.

FAHERTY: I'll watch for Saturn on any given night, but this is a really good time to look for Saturn because it's so bright, and it's particularly close to us.

MARTIN: Faherty says Saturn is the most distant planet that we can see with the naked eye, and its proximity to Earth is technically called Saturn in opposition. She says that is an unnecessarily fancy term for something that many of us are already familiar with.

FAHERTY: You know what opposition is because the full moon is an example of an object that reaches opposition. And we don't call it opposition. We just call it a full moon. So the Earth is basically zip-a-dee-doo-dah-ing (ph) around in its orbit, and it passes between the sun and Saturn. So we get to this really good vantage point of the planet.

MARTIN: It's a really good view, she says, for stargazers in the northern hemisphere, and it's pretty easy to spot.

FAHERTY: You will notice it as a very bright-looking, star-like object. It won't twinkle in the same way that the stars are twinkling, so that's how you'll know you're onto something and that that's actually the planet. You want to see the rings of Saturn, get yourself some binoculars or a telescope. A telescope is ideal. You really want to get a telescope - a tiny telescope - out for this, and you'll be able to catch Saturn's rings.

MARTIN: And if you happen to get waylaid setting up your telescope or rummaging through your closet trying to find some high-powered binoculars, don't worry. Saturn will be shining brightly all night long, so amateurs and professionals will have plenty of time to find it.

FAHERTY: Saturn is going to rise when the sun sets, and it's going to set when the sun rises. So you get a whole evening of Saturn viewing. You can watch it rise when the sun sets. You can bring a glass of wine or a glass of water, whatever you like. Bring the kids because it happens right at sunset. And then you can wake up early and watch the sunrise and catch Saturn setting.

MARTIN: Obviously, not everybody has the time, interest or capability to dabble in astronomy, but even if the stars don't normally appeal to you, Faherty believes that this is a celestial moment you just shouldn't miss out on if you can help it.

FAHERTY: I like to tell people that the nighttime sky is the original Netflix. It's what people used to entertain themselves with. Go outside. The evening comes. The stage goes up. What's happening in the sky tonight? And remind yourself where we came from. Remind yourself what is the great cosmic experience - looking up, considering where we came from, what we're traveling through the universe with. Saturn is the most distant of the planets that we can see with our naked eye. So why should you go look at it? For the sheer wonder of the human experience. That's why you should go. And it's entertaining. It's gorgeous. No reason not to look for Saturn.

MARTIN: But if you miss it or if the sky is cloudy where you are, you'll get another chance eventually. Saturn will be in opposition again in another 378 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER SONG, "SATURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.