The Eerie Sounds of Saturn

Saturn is one of the most spectacular objects of the night sky.  The beauty of this famous ringed planet is a sight to behold through a telescope!  But did you know that Saturn also is the source of some very eerie ‘sounds’?  Here’s a YouTube video (Credit: SpaceRip) that features an audio rendering of Saturn’s strange symphony of radio waves:


Northern Lights
The Northern Lights. Image Credit: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Saturn is a source of intense radio emissions, which have been monitored by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The radio waves are closely related to the auroras near the poles of the planet. These auroras are similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights.  Earth’s auroras occur when charged solar particles impact the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing atomic particles in the atmosphere to give off radiation of various wavelengths, including visual light (usually green or red colors) and radio waves.  All of this occurs as the charged particles travel down, or along, Earth’s magnetic field lines near the north and south poles.

Earth auroras
Auroras occur at both the north and south poles of Earth. The "Aurora Borealis" occurs at the north pole, and the "Aurora Australis" occurs at the south pole. Image Credit: NASA

The Cassini spacecraft began detecting these radio emissions from Saturn in April 2002, when Cassini was 374 million kilometers (234 million miles) from the planet, using the Cassini radio and plasma wave science instrument. The radio and plasma wave instrument has provided high resolution observations of these emissions, showing an amazing array of variations in frequency and time. The complex radio spectrum with rising and falling tones is very similar to Earth’s auroral radio emissions. These observations indicate that there are numerous small radio sources moving along magnetic field lines threading the auroral region of Saturn.

See the planet Saturn

Saturn is in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo this month, near the bright binary star Porrima.  The word “planet” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “wanderer,” because the planets move in relation to the background stars.  Over the course of this month, watch Saturn as it gradually moves away from Porrima, toward the bright star “Spica” in Virgo.

Saturn and Porrima in Virgo
Saturn and the bright, binary star Porrima appear close to one another in Virgo in early July. But Saturn will begin to move away from Virgo, toward Spica, as the month progresses.

Saturn’s rings appear more and more impressive as we move through the remainder of this year.  The tilt of Saturn’s rings relative to us Earthlings reached its minimum value for 2011 in June.  The tilt of the rings is growing now, making for a more impressive sight.  In fact, the tilt will more than double by the end of 2011.

If you view Saturn through even a small telescope you should see Saturn’s giant moon Titan, which is an 8th magnitude object.  Titan is the 2nd largest moon in the solar system (Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is the largest.)  This giant moon is composed of water ice and rocky material, has a largely nitrogen atmosphere, and has lakes of liquid hydrocarbons.  Depending on your telescope, you may also see the Saturnian moons Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus.

This month, Saturn appears toward the northern horizon shortly after sunset for Southern Hemisphere observers, and sets a few hours later.  Saturn appears toward the south-southwest sky for Nouthern Hemisphere observers.  Saturn will be visible in the evening skies for the next couple of months.  Then, toward the end of the year, Saturn will reappear as a morning object (rising in the east shortly before sunrise).

The Other Planets in the Night Sky This Month

Jupiter appears in the predawn, eastern sky: It will be the brightest astronomical object you see toward the eastern horizon (other than the moon and the sun!).  Currently, it resides in the Name A Star Live constellation Aries.

Mars rises shortly before sunrise over the eastern horizon.  Mars is currently in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.

The elusive planet Mercury may just be visible from your neck of the woods this month.  Look for it right after sunset, low on the western horizon.  If your local weather cooperates, try looking for Mercury on July 3.  You should find the planet roughly between the point where the sun set and the very thin crescent Moon you’ll see toward the west.

When to go stargazing this month

Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time  to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible.  If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that in July would be during the first few days, and during the last week of the month.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation.

You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope.

You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.