Saturn has been called a lot of things to include the “Jewel of the Solar System,” and the “Ringed Wonder.”
You can hang all the names you want on it, but none of them will prepare you for the jaw dropping beauty of that distant world. My first glimpse of it was at age 11.
I’d gotten a Tasco refractor telescope for Christmas. As telescopes go, it was a small, under-powered device. It had a single eyepiece, and if I wanted to look at something straight up, I ended up doing some weird contortionist act just to get my eye to the eyepiece. There was no finderscope (a small telescope on the side that helps to find your target) so I aimed it at an object by sighting along the tube of the scope in much the same way a man might aim a shotgun.
I roamed the sky from one corner of the heavens to the other. I marveled at the misty outlines of the Orion Nebula, peered across the light years at Mizar and Polaris, and let my eyes dance over the delicate barely hinted at spiral structure of the Andromeda Galaxy. With a second hand copy of Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer as my guide, I stalked deep space objects like a hunter stalking elusive lions in the Jungle.
Most of what I sought was too dim and too distant for the small scope, but that didn’t stop me from hunting.
But that Christmas night found me outside. It hadn’t snowed, but I was still bundled against the cold. My school received Sky and Telescope, and every month I memorized the star charts. I knew where Saturn would be, and I aimed the telescope at it.
I had to squat down to look through the eyepiece. I was still learning to aim the scope, and when I looked through, I saw only a sparse star field. I moved the scope this way and that, and a golden flash arched through the field of view. I went back to it, slower this time.
And there it was, the rings bent towards me and looking more like some incredible toy than a world. Saturn was no longer a dot in the sky but a thing of extra-ordinary beauty. At the lowest power setting, it was still small and far, but even from millions of miles I could make out shading in the rings, and some of the more major divisions.
Off to one side floated a reddish star. It was Titan, a distant mysterious frozen ball of a Moon that even then we knew had an atmosphere.
We hadn’t sent anything out that way yet. The Pioneer’s and Voyager spacecraft that would chart courses to that distant world and return mind numbing pictures of incredible wonders were still on the drawing boards. Over the course of the decades, I’d follow closely every probe that traced a path out to that distant but beautiful world.
Today, I have a larger telescope than the small one I began with so many years ago. With it, I can easily snare the things I couldn’t find years ago. But I always turn the telescope to Saturn and enjoy it like I did when I was child.