What does it mean for a planet to be at opposition? From our Earth perspective, the Sun and the planet are in opposite directions in the sky. The moment the Sun sets in the west, the planet rises in the east. Saturday May 23 is opposition day for Saturn. The illustration below shows a thin yellow line from the Sun through Earth to Saturn. Visit In-The-Sky.org to play with the interactive for this image.
If you have clear skies the next several evenings, look toward the low southeast sky at 10 pm. You should see this star pattern. Saturn is near the top of the group. A small telescope will allow you to see the rings.
The current view of Saturn through a high quality telescope will look very much like this. The tilt of the planet axis exposes the full extent of the rings, the gap between the rings, and the orb of Saturn. This image is linked if you want to see more by Damian Peach.
Ring Crossing View
The Cassini spacecraft has been at Saturn since 2004 examining the rings, planet, and moons. The direction and size of Cassini’s orbit is changed at times to take advantage of available views of these various features. It is currently in orbit in the same plane as the rings, but not within the rings. In January 2007, Cassini was in an orbit that was more polar, or perpendicular to the ring plane. As it moved from south (below) of the ring plane to north (above) of the rings, it captured a sequence of 34 images of the rings over a 12 hour time interval. The first views were of the directly sunlit side of the rings. Then Cassini moved to view the unlit side. The images were sequenced into this video. It is best viewed full screen and in HD. Click the gear tool ✱ in the lower right once the video starts to get HD. Watch for the passage of moons and the incredible thinness of the ring plane. Replay as needed. Explanation details are available at this site.
Over the Top View
As Saturn has emerged to the current view, the north pole has become more visible. Cassini has flown over that region and returned some interesting features at the pole. Notice the hexagonal cloud pattern with a round center.
A much higher resolution view reveals more intricate cloud patterns and a structure that looks much like the eye of a hurricane. Click to embiggen.
In April 2013, Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this video about that mysterious hurricane-like structure at the north pole of Saturn. The narrator says Cassini has been in orbit 9 years. It is now 11 years. Cassini is now in orbit along the ring plane, not over the poles. The video is less than two minutes long and gives some amazing views and explanation.
I hope you have enjoyed these views of Saturn. Try to get outside to see for real. Someone you know might have a telescope you can use. Call your local astronomy club. Here is a list. They might be having a star party soon you can attend. They always love showing others views like this so they can show off their cool equipment. Enjoy.