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Galileo and Saturn
Wednesday, July 28, 2010 • Posted July 27, 2010

In 1609 Galileo made his first perspicillum (see-through device) which we now call a telescope. It was initially used as a spyglass for seeing distant ships and other terrestrial objects.

In late in 1609 he first turned his device skyward and was astounded by views of the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and other heavenly bodies. But nothing confused him more than what he first saw 400 years ago this month. In announcing his discovery, he wrote, "I have observed the highest planet, triple-bodied," referring to Saturn which was then believed to be the most distant planet.

Elaborating his finding, he stated, "Saturn is not a single star, but is a composite of three, which almost touch each other, never change or move relative to each other, and are arranged in a row along the zodiac, the middle one being three times larger than the other two lateral ones...situated in this form - oOo."

It was a mystery Galileo never solved. His crude telescopes, inferior even to today's department store scopes, couldn't quite reveal what every school child now knows to be Saturn's rings. It wasn't until several years after Galileo's death that Christiaan Huygens, using a larger and improved telescope, solved Saturn's riddle.

To the naked eye and through most binoculars, Saturn looks like a bright star. But most of today's telescopes, even inexpensive ones, reveal what Galileo never saw clearly enough to understand.

Saturn is currently visible in our evening sky, so get out that scope tucked away in the closet, or call up a friend with a scope, or attend a local star party -- whatever it takes. Then for fun, pretend you're Galileo getting your first clear view of Saturn and its rings. Eureka!

• Sky Calendar

* July 31 Sat. morning: The Moon is above Jupiter high in the south.

* 31 Sat. evening: Mars is just to the lower left of Saturn low in the west.

* Aug. 1 Sun.: Lammas, a cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of summer.

* 2 Mon.: The Moon is at 3rd quarter.

* 4 Wed. morning: The crescent Moon is above the Pleiades star cluster in the east.

* 8 Sun. evening: Brilliant Venus (bottom), reddish Mars (upper left), and creamy-colored Saturn (upper right) form a triangle low in the west at dusk.

* 9 Mon.: The Moon in new.

* 11 Wed. evening: The crescent Moon is to the lower left of Mercury in the west at dusk.

* 12 Thu. evening: The crescent Moon is below Venus with Saturn to Venus' right and Mars to Venus' upper left.

* 12/13 Thu./Fri. all night: The Perseid meteor shower peaks with virtually no Moon interference all night.

* 13 Fri. evening: The crescent Moon is to the left of the trio of planets.

* 13 Fri.: An unlucky day for the superstitious - glad I'm not!

• Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon, and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation on its axis.) Evening: Venus is the brilliant "evening star" in the west. Mercury is just above the horizon two fist-widths (held at arm's length) to Venus' lower right. Saturn (brighter) and Mars are a fist-width to Venus' upper left. Morning: Bright Jupiter, now rising before midnight, is high in the south.

• Mars Hoax. Regardless of what you might read on the Internet, come August 27 Mars will not appear as large as the Moon. It never has and never will. Some variation of this preposterous Mars hoax has been circulating every summer since 2003 when Mars did come closer than usual. The only thing you need to remember August 27 is the Stargazer's 70th birthday!

Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or See the Stargazer Web site at

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