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Real Lord of the Rings shines

Saturn offers brilliant views to terrestrial observers

By Richard Stenger

View of Saturn from Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1981.
View of Saturn from Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1981.

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The sixth planet from the sun, Saturn is the second farthest visible to the naked eye and looks like a bright golden star.

Its rings extend about 600,000 miles (nearly 1 million kilometers) from edge to edge, or about 2.5 times the distance between the Earth and moon.

The rings, which consist of rock and ice chunks, are only several thousand feet wide.

Galileo Galilei first saw the rings in a telescope in 1610. The Italian astronomer thought they were moons orbiting on opposite sides of Saturn.

(CNN) -- Saturn makes its closest approach to the Earth in 30 years this week, promising exceptional views whether seen with the naked eye or via a telescope.

The ringed planet is now brighter than all other stars except for Sirius and Canopus. And it is tilted in the Earth's direction, giving observers using even simple telescopes an impressive view of the rings.

Even if one missed the closest encounter on Tuesday, the celestial show continues until early 2003.

"Saturn and Earth will be close together for many weeks," noted said NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams in an online science bulletin. "So get out your telescope. Even a small one will do."

Saturn closes to within 750 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) of Earth on Tuesday. The maximum distance between the two planets is about 1 billion miles ( nearly 1.7 billion kilometers).

Saturn and sun

Currently, Saturn and the sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, bringing Saturn close to our planet and making it appear brighter than usual to terrestrial observers.

Known as opposition, the situation takes place about every 13 months. But the current one is the best in three decades because Saturn happens to be making its closest approach to the sun in its lopsided orbit.

"Saturn's 30-year orbit is not a perfect circle. It has the shape of an ellipse with one side 6 percent closer to the sun than the other," Adams said. "When Saturn is closer to the sun, it's also closer to Earth, and we get a great view."

Saturn looks exceptionally bright now in part because its rings, potent sunlight reflectors, are tilted in the Earth's direction. The circular debris bands disappear when viewed edge-on.

Seven years ago, when Saturn passed comparatively close to Earth, the rings were flat, making them nearly undetectable.

The reason for the changes in the appearance of the rings is that they are tilted 27 degrees in relation to Saturn's orbit. They seem to teeter as the planet goes around the sun.

To find Saturn, sky watchers should look for a bright yellow point near the stars in the constellation Taurus.

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