On New Years Eve the Lord
of the Rings will be closer to Earth and brighter than at any time in three
decades. All month long skywatchers can enjoy Saturn at its finest. A similar
opportunity won't come again for another 30 years.
If in 2003 we had the Summer
of Mars, this will be the Winter of Saturn.
| ||NightSky Friday || |
| || Images |
|DEC. 10: Saturn is easy to find this night, as it is near the Moon. This map shows the sky at 8:30 p.m. from mid-northern latitudes. The map works on surrounding nights, but the Moon will have moved.|
| * Graphic made with Starry Night Software |
|DEC. 31: The sky on New Year's Eve at 8:30 p.m. from mid-northern latitudes. Saturn and the stars move higher as the night progresses.|
|Map of the solar system from above on Dec. 31 shows Saturn at opposition.|
| || Related SPACE.com STORIES |
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| || TODAY'S DISCUSSION || |
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On Dec. 31, Saturn will
be opposite the Sun in relation to Earth. That means from our planet, Saturn
will rise as the Sun sets, reaching its highest point in the southern sky at
midnight and setting as the Sun rises. Astronomers call this opposition.
Saturn takes 29.42 years
to orbit the Sun. Its path is not quite circular, and it was just on July 26
that Saturn reached its closest point to the Sun on that orbit, called perihelion.
The near coincidence of perihelion and opposition dictate that on New Years
Eve, Saturn will be closer to Earth than at any time since December 1973.
Those glorious rings
planet will be 748.3 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from Earth.
It will not come closer until December 2031. Contrast this year's event to another
opposition, in June 2018, when Saturn will get no closer than 841 million miles,
or almost 100 million miles farther away.
There's a bonus. Saturn's
rings are not always well tilted for viewing. Sometimes they are edge on, as
seen from Earth, and unimpressive.
Right now, the rings are
still dramatically tipped -- more than 25 degrees to our line of sight. This
allows the planet to be seen in all its glory, and it also accentuates Saturnís
By the end of December,
Saturn will be shining as bright as it can ever get, at magnitude Ė0.5. Among
the stars, only Sirius
With a simple sky
map, Saturn is easy to find right now.
It is currently in the constellation
of Gemini, the Twins. Were we to use the popular tracing conceived by H.A. Rey,
of "two matchstick men holding hands," Saturn is found between the legs of the
Early on Wednesday evening,
Dec. 10, Saturn will be the very bright yellowish-white "star" hovering to the
lower right of a waning gibbous Moon as they rise out of the east-northeast
part of the sky.
Saturn is the telescopic
showpiece of the night sky, thanks to its great ring system in all of its icy,
glimmering elegance. In small telescopes, the rings surprise even veteran observers
with their chilling beauty. Certainly they will delight anyone this winter who
might receive a telescope as a holiday gift.
Any telescope magnifying
more than 30x will show them. Even most inexpensive department store telescopes
should do the job (though if you're thinking about buying a telescope, you'll
want to learn
more and become a discerning buyer -- there's a lot of junk on the market.)
The children of Saturn
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
was the first to view the rings, in 1610. Although what he saw through his crude
telescope left him completely baffled, as Saturn appeared to him not to have
rings but rather two smaller bodies flanking it, one on either side. He couldnít
make them out clearly and thought that Saturn was a triple body, two small orbs
attached to a large one.
Later, when the rings turned
edgewise to Earth and the two companions disappeared, Galileo invoked an ancient
myth when he wrote, "Has Saturn swallowed his children?" Galileo lamented that
his mind was too weak to comprehend this strange phenomenon.
Cassini just sent this new postcard of Saturn. The spacecraft
will reach Saturn next year after a long journey.
the Image >>>
Actually, it was his telescope
that was too weak; a better one would have revealed Saturnís companions as rings.
It was not until a young Dutch mathematician, Christian Huygens (1629-1695)
utilized a much better telescope, and on March 25, 1655 saw the rings for what
they really were.
In mythology, Saturn closely
resembled the Greek god Cronus, but heís more usually recognized as the Roman
god of agriculture.
The name is related to both
the noun satus (seed corn) and the verb serere (to sow). But why would the planet
Saturn be linked to agriculture? Perhaps a clue can be found from the ancient
Assyrians who referred to Saturn as lubadsagush, which translated, meant "oldest
of the old sheep."
Possibly this name was applied
because Saturn seems to move so very slowly among the stars, compared to nearer
planets that shift their seasonal positions in the sky more quickly. It may
have also reminded sky watchers of the slow gait of plowing oxen or cattle.
Closer views of Saturn are
slated for next year. NASA's Cassini spacecraft will arrive at the ringed planet
and is expected to produce the best images and data ever collected of the sixth
planet from the Sun.
Correction: This article originally stated
that on New Year's Eve 2003, Saturn would be closer to Earth than at any time
since December 1973 and that it would not come closer to Earth again until January
of 2034. However, even closer approaches will occur in December 2031 and December
2032. On Christmas Eve in 2032 Saturn will be about 1.7 million miles (2.7 million
kilometers) closer to Earth than it was on New Year's Eve 2003. This article
has been updated to reflect the correction.
Saturn at Home!
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