By Senior Science Writer
updated 12/30/2003 9:30:39 PM ET 2003-12-31T02:30:39

Saturn will be closer to Earth on New Year's Eve than at any time in the past three decades.

In a stroke of good timing, Saturn's rings are tilted favorably, so that in small telescopes they are as striking as they can be. The setup provides backyard skywatchers a fine opportunity to see the planet at its best.

"Saturn's going to be really beautiful," said NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams. "Sunlight reflected from Saturn's rings makes the planet extra bright."

The gas giant planet will be 748.3 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers) from Earth. It will not be closer until January of 2034.

Finding the planet is simple. A sky map is useful. Saturn is the standout point of light among several bright stars in the eastern evening sky. Look for its yellowish tint. At midnight, it will be almost directly overhead.

To the naked eye, Saturn will appear as a star. Almost any telescope, including inexpensive department store types, should reveal the rings. Seasoned and amateur astronomers alike are known to gasp at the sight.

"They're breathtaking," Adams said.

Image: Saturn
NASA  /  Space Science Institute
NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped this picture of Saturn last month. Cassini is due to arrive at Saturn next July.
The distance between Earth and Saturn varies greatly because the worlds orbit the sun at different paces. Saturn's trip around the sun takes 29.42 Earth-years. When both planets line up on the same side of the sun, as occurs on Dec. 31, Saturn is said to be in opposition. Because the planets' orbits are not perfect circles, no two oppositions are the same.

This opposition can be compared to another favorable one due in June 2018, when Saturn will be about 841 million miles (1.3 billion kilometers) away — much farther than this year.

Other planets are visible now. Mars continues to shine fairly brightly. Its noticable for its orange tint and can be found high in the south after sunset. Look for it below and to the right of the moon on New Year's Eve. Mars sets in the west at around midnight local time.

Jupiter is unmistakably bright. It rises in the east at about 10:30 p.m. local time and should be obvious at midnight, the dominant point of light in the eastern sky.

Those who step outside just after sunset will see an even brighter spectacle. Venus blazes brilliantly in the western sky, setting about two hours after the sun. No celestial object but the moon outshines Venus at night now. In fact, Venus is so bright it's easy to spot before the sky gets fully dark.

Saturn will continue to be a fine sky target through January.

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