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No. 60: Nov-Dec 1988

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Why didn't galileo resolve saturn's rings?

Several times in SF and our catalogs, we have intimated that Saturn's rings may be of recent vintage or perhaps have changed in historical times. In this vein, K. Fabian writes about an interesting inconsistency:

"In the early 17th Century, Galileo discovered that the planet Mars goes through a minor gibbous phase. Even in its maximum gibbous phase, Mars is 88% illuminated. Quoting James Muirden in the Amateur Astronomer's Handbook, 'It is remarkable that Galileo was able to make out the phase with his tiny telescope.'

"Even more amazing, in my opinion, is that Galileo, while he was able to resolve the slight phase of Mars, was unable to resolve the major ring around Saturn. Mars is a difficult object in a small telescope, while Saturn is easily resolved as a ringed planet in even a 40-mm spotting scope at 30X. Why did the rings of Saturn elude Galileo, while the more difficult Martian phases did not? Perhaps at the time of Galileo the rings of Saturn were much more difficult to observe than they are today."

(Fabian, Karl; personal communication, September 9, 1988.)

Reference. For more on the many anomalies of Saturn's rings, see ALR in the catalog: The Moon and the Pla nets. Description here.

From Science Frontiers #60, NOV-DEC 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss