My SJAA Ephemeris planetary astronomy column for next month will discuss Saturn, among other topics, since Saturn is the main planet visible in the evening sky right now.
Saturn has some storms visible right now in the north polar and equatorial bands, and a great way to focus your attention to see more detail through a telescope, especially on subtle details like Saturnian storms, is to take pencil and paper and sketch what you see. I've recommended sketching in my column many times before, but don't talk about it on the blog very often.
When sketching Saturn, it helps to start with a template, so you can concentrate on the interesting details of the rings and bands rather than fussing over trying to get the exact width of the rings right. Saturn's tilt changes with time -- right now it's tilted at 8° to observers here on Earth -- so sometimes the rings are open wide, sometimes they're narrow, and sometimes (as last year) they're edge-on and invisible to us. That's a hassle to try to get right in a sketch, when you'd rather be focusing on the gaps in the rings and the pastel colors of the cloud bands on the planet.
ALPO, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, makes templates for sketching Saturn; but I had trouble finding any online that showed a tilt appropriate for this month's Saturn. You can get observing materials by joining ALPO, but sheesh! you shouldn't have to join an organization just to get a simple sketching template. And I wanted one for my column. Besides, the ALPO templates fill in too much detail -- they don't really give you a chance to do your own ring sketch.
So here's an easy way to make a Saturn sketching template with GIMP.
Start with an image
You can calculate the aspect ratio you need for the planet from the ring tilt, but why go to all that trouble? I started with an image of Saturn I got by running XEphem. Call up View->Saturn, then make the window as big as you can. Of course, you may substitute any planetarium program of your choosing, as long as it shows Saturn with the right ring tilt.
I used GIMP's screenshot facility to open this as an image: File->Create->Screenshot..., then Select a region to grab.
You can also use a recent photo of Saturn. The point here is to get something that's the right shape: it doesn't matter if it's beautiful or large.
Fix the rotation and size
You want the rings horizontal, if they're not already. Use GIMP's Free Rotate tool to do that. You can eyeball it to make it approximately right, or if you want to be more accurate, use the Measure tool (the icon looks like a drawing compass) to measure from one edge of the rings to the other and note the angle in the status bar at the bottom of the window. Then when you use Free Rotate, type in the number you measured.
You'll be printing this out on sketching paper, so if the original image is small, use Image->Scale to expand it. Remember, you won't be looking at this original image -- it's just for tracing -- so don't worry if the image comes out fuzzy after you scale it up. I made mine about 1000 pixels wide.
Make a white background layer
Layer->New Layer... to make a new layer; check "white" in the dialog. Then click the eyeball icon next to it in the Layers dialog to make it invisible. You'll want it later.
Outline the planet on its own layer
Layer->New Layer... to make a new layer; this time make it transparent, not white. I named mine "planet", since this is where I'll draw the ellipse for the planet. (Yes, Saturn is an ellipse, not a sphere. So is the Earth, for that matter, but Saturn is a lot less spherical than Earth is.)
Choose the ellipse selection tool and drag out a selection that matches the outer edges of the planet. Use the resize handles to adjust the selection until it fits as closely as you can manage.
In the Toolbox or the Brushes dialog, choose the smallest hard brush, "Circle (01)".
Then Edit->Stroke Selection.... Click "Stroke with a paint tool", and click Stroke.
Tip: You may notice my template ended up with very jaggy lines. That's a common artifact of GIMP's Stroke Selection. I'm not worried about it for a sketching template, but if the jaggies bother you, you can get a much smoother line by converting the selection to a path and stroking the path instead of the selection.
Preview your work so far
Go back to the Layers dialog and make that white layer visible again, so you can see the outline you just made. You may want to do Select->None and click on some tool other than ellipse select, so the selection outline disappears and you can see the line better.
If you're not happy with your planet outline, Edit->Undo and repeat with a different selection, a thicker line or whatever.
Outline the rings on their own layer
Repeat what you just did for the planet, this time for the rings. I recommend using a new layer for just the rings (you'll see why in the next step).
I outlined just the outside of the rings, so the sketch can show the ring thickness. ALPO's templates don't do this, but how much ring you can see can vary based on seeing conditions. If you want the inner edge of the ring on your template, add it now.
Erase the hidden parts of the ring and planet outlines
You can't see the rings where they go behind the planet, or the part of the planet hidden by the rings. And you don't want your template lines spoiling your sketch in those regions. So use GIMP's eraser tool and a large brush to erase the appropriate parts.
This is a little easier if you used separate layers for the rings and planet: you won't have to be as careful with the eraser. But it's not a big deal: this is a template, not a finished artwork, and you're going to be drawing over it anyway. So don't sweat it too much.
Optionally, make the lines fainter
I made the template lines fainter using the Opacity slider in the Layers dialog on the planet and ring layers. Of course, you can just draw in grey in the first place, but I like being able to decide afterward what color I want, or change it later.
Label the template
Trust me, you'll be really annoyed if you decide in 2026 that you want to make another Saturn sketch, find your old template but can't remember what ring tilt it's for. So use the Text tool to label either the current date or the approximate ring tilt. Or put that information in an image comment under Image->Image Properties..., or in the filename.
Save your template as XCF.gz, save a copy in some other format like jpg, png or gif, and you're ready to print templates on paper. Then go out and sketch Saturn!
[ 15:13 Jun 07, 2011 More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]