as seen through a range of telescope
apertures in the few months around
closest approach 31 December 2003

A super-sharp image of  Saturn courtesy of Hubble Space Telescope
Aperture 2.4m (94" 2400 mm)

Below are simulations of how Saturn would appear through telescopes
with apertures from 2.4" to 12" under (1) perfect excellent conditions and
(2) moderate turbulence (more typical of observing conditions).

Magnifications are set to 40x per inch of aperture.

If you have persistent problems seeing any detail at all see troubleshooter.

Images prepared by Aberrator V3
referring to Saturn's disk at at apparent size of about 20 arc seconds.
Range 21 to 15 arc seconds. Mean is 17 arc seconds

Aperture of Telescope
(1) View in Perfect Seeing
(2) View in Moderate Seeing
2.4" (60 mm)
3.5" (90 mm)
4" (105 mm)
5" (127 mm)
6" (150 mm)
8" (200 mm)
10" (254 mm)
12" (300 mm)

1. Are the optics of your scope good quality? Bad optics will never focus sharply and image contrast will always be poor. In a reflecting telescope if the mirror is homemade, has it been tested so that you know if it can perform well?

2. Collimation, (optical alignment) could be the problem. Visit this site on how to fix this and many other telescope problems.

3. Bad seeing (turbulence). If Saturn is low in the sky, atmospheric turbulence can obliterate contrast and detail on the planet. Wait for it to gain altitude say greater than 30 degrees. Sometimes seeing may be bad even when Saturn is high. It depends on atmospheric conditions at the time.

4. Speaking of turbulence. Thermal currents inside the telescope tube will have a similar effect if the scope is transported from a warm interior to cold outdoors. Allow the scope 1/2hr to 1hr to reach thermal equilibrium outdoors before beginning to search for planetary detail.

5. Even in an 8" with good optics and good seeing conditions the main features of the planet require some patience and practice to discern especially if you are new to observing and have been spoiled by wondeful Hubble and interplanetary spacecraft images . With a 3.5" (90mm) Saturn's main ring division called the Cassini's Division, the shadow of the planet on the rings,  Saturn's dusky "polar cap" and equatorial band should visible.

6. Sometimes a larger aperture performs worse than a smaller aperture under bad seeing conditions. You may have been caught out by this. It depends on the prevailing general seeing conditions in your locality which may be determined by season and the thermal effects of adjacent buildings, asphalt, bodies of water, vegetation and other such factors. You might like to try a 4" or 6" aperture mask over the top end of the scope to see if this beats the seeing conditions. It might also cure a badly figured homemade mirror if that is the problem.

7. Are you pushing the magnification too high? Telescopes have a magnification limited based on aperture size. It's the laws of optics! Beyond this the image degrades in quality. If seeing is bad it only compounds the degradation. Use moderately high powers like 40-50x per inch of aperture. E.g. for an 8" scope the formula gives 8x40=320x. The simulations above are based on 40x per inch.

8. Sometimes a blue or green  filter will help if the seeing is good to begin with and your scope aperture is 8" or larger. Otherwise it makes little difference. 

9. Provided the optics in your scope are good to begin with, keep on persisting with the above points in mind and you are sure to get a good night when Saturn will deliver! As a rule, with good optics, under good seeing conditions, a larger aperture will always outperform a smaller one. 

Compiled by Martin Lewicki : mlewicki *at* ozemail dot com dot au

Also available : Martin's other astronomy articles