Moon approaches Saturn

One of the hardest things to do when starting in astronomy is learning what is up in the sky, writes Ian Griffin.

Novice stargazers want to observe something interesting, but don't yet have the experience to know where to locate it amongst myriad stars.

In my view, the only effective way to learn the night sky is to spend time out under the stars with a star map. Sometimes, nature comes to the aid of apprentice skywatchers when a bright celestial body approaches something they want to study but don't know how to find.

Such a natural opportunity occurs next Monday evening (August 12) when the waxing gibbous moon makes a close approach to Saturn. So, if you have always wanted to catch a glimpse of the solar system's most beautiful planet, on Monday, the moon provides a very helpful signpost.

The two celestial bodies will be pretty close to each other for most of the night, but they will be closest just after 9pm. Saturn should be easily visible to the naked eye as a bright ''star'' very close to the moon's southern limb.

Of course, the moon and Saturn are not physically close. At the moment they are closest; the moon is just over 392,000km away while Saturn is more than 1.3 billion km from us.

While it's always nice to spot a planet, in the case of Saturn, the naked-eye view is nothing compared to seeing it through a telescope. I was reminded just how amazing Saturn is this past weekend during a visit to the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory.

I was there to mentor six high-school students from across New Zealand as part of the Ministry of Culture's Tuia 250 programme commemorating the first contact between Maori and the crew of Endeavour back in 1769.

After arriving at the observatory, I pointed a telescope towards Saturn and invited the students to take a look. Their gasps of astonishment and delight reaffirmed my personal opinion that observing Saturn through a telescope is something everyone should do at least once in their life.

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