"Ring’ in the new year
December 30, 2003
Saturn will be at its closest and brightest for the next three decades on New Year’s Eve.
Once the fireworks have subsided, and assuming the night sky isn’t full of snow or clouds, take a walk away from the glare of lights and look directly up. The gas giant planet will be almost directly overhead in a brilliant yellow outshining the stars nearby.
The astronomical phenomenon providing the show is known as opposition – when a planetary body and the sun are at opposite ends of a line drawn with Earth at the center.
In addition to the sunlight reflected by the planet, Saturn’s brightness is augmented because its rings are tipped up toward Earth.
Often, the rings are seen on edge and are not much to look at, but with the rings tipped at nearly 25 degrees to the viewing plane from Earth, the only objects in the sky brighter than Saturn will be the stars Sirius – the Dog Star – and Canopus.
Saturn also will be extra bright because it will be so close to our planet.
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In July, the sixth planet from the sun reached its nearest point to the star in its orbit, called the perihelion. Saturn’s orbit of the sun takes just under 29-and-a-half years, so in astronomical terms, this opposition of sun and Saturn is still dramatically close to Saturn’s perihelion.
Basically, the result is that Saturn and Earth are only 748 million miles apart. The two planets won’t be that close together again until January 2034.
With the naked eye, Saturn will be a bright yellowish-orange spot. But anyone with a telescope or binoculars with lenses that magnify 30 times or more will be able to see the rings.
Galileo Galilei is the first person known to have observed Saturn’s rings in 1610 with a 20-power spyglass.
The prolific astronomer didn’t recognize the rings as modern scientists do, but thought they were two bodies, possibly moons, around Saturn.
The Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens identified the rings correctly 45 years later; Huygens had built a 23-foot telescope that magnified objects 100 times.
European Space Agency astronomers will honor Huygens for his addition to space discovery when a probe will drop from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to the surface of Titan, Saturn’s giant moon.
Launched in 1997, the spacecraft will reach Saturn in June. The probe will take thousands of pictures, atmospheric samples and wind measurements as it parachutes to Titan’s surface in January 2005.