What Would Happen If Saturn Came Extremely Close To Earth?
May 14, 2014

What Would Happen If Saturn Came Extremely Close To Earth?

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While astronomers enjoyed the best view of Saturn this past weekend, an animator created a new video depicting what would happen if the people of Earth got an extreme close-up of the sixth planet from the Sun.

According to Laurel Kornfeld of The Space Reporter, Saturn reached opposition on May 10, which means that it and the Earth were on opposite sides of the Sun. The ringed planet was also at its closest distance to our world – approximately 83 million miles away, making it appear much larger and far brighter than usual.

Taking inspiration from its opposition and close approach, Yeti Dynamics took images captured by the Voyager and Cassini missions to create a video demonstrating what Saturn would look like if it came as close to Earth as Mars is, Kornfeld added. While such a scenario is possible, as Saturn maintains a stable nearly-circular orbit, the video shows that the planet would appear to be as bright in our night sky as the Moon, despite being 150 times further away.

In addition, Slate.com’s Phil Plait noted that the planet’s disk would be approximately one-fourth of the Moon’s size, and the rings would stretch to be approximately two-thirds as large as our planet’s natural satellite. However, while the video is interesting, it isn’t exactly 100 percent scientifically accurate for reasons other than Saturn’s orbit.

For purposes of the video, Yeti Dynamics had to ignore the immense gravitational pull created by a planet with a mass nearly 100 times that of Earth, Plait said. As it approached, it would throw the Moon out of Earth’s orbit, most likely causing it to enter a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun, and would eventually recross the Earth’s orbit, resulting in “a potentially very bad future scenario,” he added.

But that isn’t the only problem, as Saturn’s rings would wind up being destroyed during the approach, according to Plait. The rings, which are comprised of countless miniature ice particles, would begin feeling the pull of Earth’s gravity as Saturn approached, causing the particles to be yanked out of them and forming a long plume. Most of those particles would continue to orbit Saturn, he said, but the structures that they form would be destroyed.

“Over time, the particles would collide with the other parts of the ring, and eventually the system would settle down once again,” Plait said. “Except I doubt they’d get the chance. Even if the rings could survive their encounter with Earth they wouldn’t have a very long future,” as Saturn’s path of travel would ultimately bring it close enough to the Sun for the ice particles to heat up and turn into gas particles through a process known as sublimation.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for astronomy buffs to observe Saturn without the added risk of potentially apocalyptic scenarios. While this past weekend was the best time to observe the planet, Tuesday evening also provided a golden opportunity to see the ringed planet, according to Tech Times reporter Alexander Saltarin.

“When it rises with the moon this May 13, astronomers expect that the planet will be almost as bright as the star Arcturus,” Saltarin said. “Experts say that in terms of the brightness scale used on celestial objects, Saturn will be shining at a magnitude of zero, which is very bright indeed. However, Saturn will be slightly dimmer compared to Arcturus.  Moreover, Saturn will be shining with more of a yellowish-white light whereas Arcturus will be a bit on the orange side.”