Look Up Tonight! Saturn Is Big and Bright, With Rings Tilted Our Way

NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

Look up tonight, June 14, and overnight into the early morning hours of June 15, and you’ll be able to see Saturn looming luminously in the evening sky. Bring a telescope and you might even be able to see its rings.

Tonight, Saturn is “at opposition”—that is, as close to the Earth as it's going to get this year, and therefore big and bright. It's because our orbits: We are presently in alignment with the Sun, and between it and Saturn, so from our perspective, the disc of Saturn is in full illumination. Think of it as a “full Saturn,” with the same general idea at work as when we have a full Moon.

So what are you waiting for? You’re not going to live forever. Grab a telescope and a blanket and get to the countryside. The Roman god of agriculture and wealth awaits!

HOW DO I SEE IT?

When you look at Mars through a telescope, you’re looking for the ice caps. When you look at Jupiter, you’re looking for its moons and gorgeous stripes. When you look at our Moon, you want to see the craters, ridges, and mountains along the terminator (the line dividing light and dark during the moon’s phases). Saturn, of course, is all about the rings.

Here is the good news: Any telescope of reasonable power should be able to see Saturn’s rings. (That $30 novelty telescope you bought your kid for Christmas that’s collecting dust in a closet? If it has 25x magnification—and it probably does—and if the sky is clear and light pollution low and you know what you’re doing, you can use that.)

Here’s the bad news: Saturn is smaller than Jupiter and a lot farther away from the Earth. Right now, even as it nears opposition, it's nine astronomical units away. (An astronomical unit is the distance between the Sun and the Earth.) This means you should prepare yourself for something less spectacular than Cassini-generated images. It’s going to be small. It’s going to be fuzzy. But it will be recognizable as Saturn, and it's a good year to try to spot its rings.

the rings of saturn
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A good view of the rings is not always a guarantee. Some years, the rings are edge-on when seen through a telescope, making them appear more as a single flat line bisecting the planet than as actual rings circling an alien world. (Without enough magnification, the rings might seem to vanish entirely.) Other years, the rings are “open,” Saturn’s pole tilting our way, and you get that wonderful Glamour Shots pose, the rings 45-degrees forward and giving the camera all it’s got. This is because of the planet's orbit and tilts.

Why is it so important for you to get out there and check out Saturn tonight? Because 2017 is a “wide open” year. You’re going to see it all, and with enough telescope, you’ll even be able to make out the gap between the rings and the planet. Saturn will first creep over the southeastern horizon just after 9:30 p.m. EDT on June 14, and will reach its highest point in the sky around 1:30 a.m. This is the best time for viewing: a high, bright Saturn, due south and with rings aplenty. If you’re setting an alarm, give yourself a lot of time to set up and for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The usual conditions apply: You need a clear sky and no light pollution.

If the weather is bad tonight or you have unbreakable plans, take heart: Saturn will look virtually identical tomorrow night—so much so that beginning at 8 pm EDT on June 15, Slooh is hosting a livestream of the planet featuring views from telescopes and live commentary by astronomers.

SOON THE ONLY WAY TO SEE IT

After September 15, the only way anyone will be able to see Saturn’s rings is to use a telescope, whether of the backyard or the Hubble variety. That’s because NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which first arrived in the Saturnian system on July 1, 2004, will finally arrive at the end of its mission on that day. Cassini’s grand finale will see the spacecraft plunge into the mysterious atmosphere of the gas giant, where it will disintegrate, though not before returning data revealing the nature of the planet’s magnetosphere and surface winds, and providing some idea of composition of its core.

Cassini is at present still orbiting Saturn, though you will not be able to see the spacecraft with your telescope tonight, even if you do have access to Hubble.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER