– A CLOSE ENCOUNTER IN 30 YEARS
Mars ruled in August.
And now, the bright Saturn for the cold winter nights. It is the
turn of the Lord of the rings to be at opposition on December
31, 2003 – the exact time of opposition, as seen from Delhi, will
be 2:28 AM, on January 01, 2004.
Saturn is at opposition,
that is, diametrically opposite to the Sun as seen from Earth,
once every 378.1 days or once every one year and two weeks. So,
what is so special now? Is this just an annual event? Yes, and
No. Yes, Saturn oppositions are annual events – unlike in the
case of Mars, which is in opposition, roughly every two years.
However, the ellipticity of orbits makes some oppositions closer
than the others and the current opposition happens to be the closest
Saturn will be to Earth in the last 30 years. It will be another
30 years – January 2034, when it will be so close again.
Saturn orbits the
Sun in about 29.42 years, in an elliptical orbit. At perihelion
of this orbit, July 2003, it was the closest to the Sun. Oppositions
that fall close to the perihelion are closer to us than the other
oppositions and hence the nearness of Saturn to Earth comes this
All the same, this
dance of close and distant oppositions does not make dramatic
changes in the brightness and apparent size of Saturn. Dramatic
brilliance is expected this time around – more from the fact that
the current tilt of the rings of Saturn is favourable, as viewed
The tilt of the rings
of Saturn, as seen from Earth, varies with time – so much so that
sometimes the rings may be barely visible. Other times, seen at
more oblique angles, remarkable structure of the rings would be
discernible with even modest equipment. Well, the tilt during
this opposition is as oblique as it gets, making it possible for
us to have good views of Saturn.
A simulated image
of Saturn, as will be seen from Delhi, at the time of opposition
is shown here.The view will be so good enough that one may attempt
to discern the Cassini division, the relatively dark, gap region
between the outer and inner ring structures of Saturn with even
One can compare this
with the September 1995 opposition of Saturn, when the rings were
so edge on that no structure was visible. A simulated view of
the September 95, opposition as would have been seen from Delhi,
is also given here.
Saturn is the slowest
moving of all the naked eye planets and this was noticed by the
ancient observers. There is a comparison of Sita musing on Ram
to the approach of the slow moving Saturn towards the star Chitra,
in Valmiki Ramayan.
As usual, there are
dire predictions by astrologers about the coming celestial event.
Given that Saturn is their favourite, in terms of bringing disasters
to all and sundry, these predictions will be all the more discouraging
for the current opposition. Needless to say, none of these astrological
predictions has any grain of reason. They are best ignored. Planet
positions in their orbits have no earthly or heavenly reason to
influence our lives in any way.
Yes, there is one
influence. Sometimes they are very interesting to watch, so let
us concentrate on that! On the day of the opposition at the year-end,
Saturn will rise just as Sun sets. So one can have good early
views of Saturn, on that day. (PIB Features)
SATURN IN 1995
SATURN AS WOULD BE SEEN FROM DELHI
ON DECEMBER 31, 2003
by Dr. N. Rathnasree, Director, Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi.