Last week, amazingly, a clear night in San Francisco! Using our poor-quality telescope on the landing between our apartment and little back office, my husband B. and I searched for Saturn for weeks, but due to clouds, fog, and occasional forgetfulness, had not yet seen it. Neither of us had ever seen it in fact, except in dreaming as we pored over rapturous pictures taken by the Cassini orbiter and Harvard’s Chandra observatory.
The second largest planet in our solar system after Jupiter, the gas giant’s average radius is nine times greater than the Earth’s. Its mass and resulting gravitation render the planet’s conditions unrecognizable: wind speeds can reach 1,800 km/h, whereas Earth’s reached 380 km/h on New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. Titan, Saturn’s largest of sixty-two known moons, and the solar system’s second largest after Jupiter’s Ganymede, is larger than the planet Mercury and is the only moon with an atmosphere. But Earth is the only planet in our solar system where life is known to exist.
The planet was named after the Roman god Saturn – otherwise known as the Greek Titan Cronus (father of Zeus), or the Babylonian Ninurta, or the Hindu Shani. What did the ancients see when they looked up to the skies? Gods, goddesses, myths and legends – the entire parade of life marching across the sky? Were they looking for the same things we are, the origins and the meaning of life?
Watching the dark heavens as Earth tilted in its orbit, I thought of my mother, whose poor vision and mental illness convinced her that enemies had conspired to remove the stars from the sky. Of what such a loss might mean to someone like her, once so keen and vibrant. Looking at B., his back straight as a board, posture impeccable as he peered through the telescope, I thought how lucky we are, how lucky I am. Just then, when it seemed the windless evening couldn’t get any better, the planet entered his field of vision. I never thought it could be so beautiful. With our own eyes we saw its rings, shining out there like a beacon, millions of miles away. Its nine rings, ice particles with a sprinkle of rocky debris and dust, as it made its way across the galaxy, hundreds of “moonlets” buried within. That instant, I felt powerfully my connection to B., the rest of our planet, the universe itself.