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Sky watch: Gasp and marvel at clearly visible Saturn

The man who flew a kite in a lightning storm so that we might one day have electricity, and penned such poignant words as "in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes" - the great 18th-century philosopher, statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin - had a profound interest in astronomy.

Not only was he the widely read author of "Poor Richard's Almanack," but he philosophized about the possible existence of life elsewhere in the universe, and even charted the path of the planet Mercury during a rare transit across the face of the sun.

I'm sure Franklin even peered with a telescope at the stars from the then-dark streets of Philadelphia, and perhaps even marveled at the beautiful ringed planet Saturn. But I wonder if he ever shared that planetary view with any first-time telescope viewers.

This month, Saturn is at its best - reaching its official opposition point on March 22. And that means not only is the ringed planet now at its nearest and brightest, it also rises around sunset and remains visible to planet watchers all night long.

As the sky darkens this week, look for Saturn low in the eastern sky, just below the stars of the constellation Leo, the lion.

And if you've got a small telescope, now is definitely the time to aim it toward this planet. Not only is Saturn about as close to the Earth as it can get (about 790 million miles), but its rings are now tipped slightly in our direction.

What intrigues me most about Saturn is how people react when viewing this beautiful planet for the first time. I can always count on a gasp of amazement, often followed by a joking accusation that I slipped in a slide to trick them. And this happens not just occasionally, but nearly every single time.

Maybe now you see my dilemma. If Franklin had, indeed, ever aimed a telescope toward Saturn for a group of first-time viewers, I'd wager that he would have heard everyone gasp at the sight. And I suspect that, being the wise man that he was, Franklin might have written his now-famous quotation just a bit differently:

". . . in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes, and the reaction of stargazers to the amazing ringed planet."


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