Observations Of Saturn From Earth

Even under the best telescopic viewing conditions possible from Earth's surface, features on Saturn smaller than a few thousand kilometres cannot be resolved. Thus, the great detail exhibited in the rings and atmosphere was largely unknown prior to spacecraft observations. Even the A ring's Encke gap, reported in 1837 by the German astronomer Johann Franz Encke, was considered dubious for well over a century until it was confirmed in 1978 by the American astronomer Harold Reitsema, who used measurements of an eclipse of the moon Iapetus by the rings to improve on normal Earth-based resolution.

Modern research on Saturn from Earth's vicinity relies on a variety of special telescopic techniques. Infrared spectroscopy of the rings, atmosphere, and moons has yielded considerable information about their composition and thermal balance. Spatial resolution of the rings and atmospheric structures on the scale of kilometres is obtained by observing light from bright stars that pass behind the planet as seen from Earth. Such an instance occurred in 1989, when both Saturn and Titan occulted the bright star 28 Sagittarii, allowing astronomers to observe ring and atmospheric structures at a level of detail not seen since the Voyager encounters. The 1990 appearance of the Great White Spot in Saturn's atmosphere was successfully observed not only with surface-based telescopes but also with the Hubble Space Telescope above the distorting effect of Earth's atmosphere. In 1995, when Earth passed through the ring plane, the edge-on viewing geometry permitted a direct determination of the ring thickness and a precise measurement of the rate of precession of Saturn's rotational axis.

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