15th December, 2003


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 opposition.

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 from Earth.

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 modest equipment.

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)



Contributed by Dr. N. Rathnasree, Director, Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi.


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