To commemorate Saturn reaching opposition on May 10, along with the planet being to Earth this year, an animator created a video depicting how the ringed planet would appear in our sky if its orbit moved it much closer to us.
A celestial body reaches opposition when it resides on the opposite side of the Earth and sun. At that point, the object rises in the east at sunset, stays in the sky all night, and sets as the Sun rises. Saturn is now at its closest distance to the Earth, about 830 million miles away (1.3 billion km), so it appears larger and brighter than usual over the next few weeks.
Although Saturn’s diameter is 9.5 times that of the Earth, it appears as a point of light to the naked eye because of the great distance between the two planets. Viewers using binoculars or a telescope can see its ring system. Inspired by Saturn’s opposition and close approach, animator Yeti Dynamics used images taken by the Voyager and Cassini missions to create a video showing its appearance in Earth’s skies if it came as close as Mars and eventually between the Earth and Moon.
These scenarios will never happen in real life because the ringed planet is in a stable, almost circular orbit that never takes it closer to Earth than its current position.
From Mars’ orbit, Saturn would appear as bright as the full Moon and a quarter its size even though it would still be 150 times further away than the Moon is. The rings would appear two-thirds the Moon’s size.
In illustrating Saturn’s appearance between the Earth and Moon, the animator ignored the fact that from such a close distance, the giant planet’s tremendous gravitational pull, due to its mass being 100 times that of the Earth, would destroy the Earth and send the Moon spiraling out of its orbit. The close approach would pull icy particles from Saturn’s rings, elongating their orbits. As Saturn comes closer to the Sun, the ring particles would sublimate into gaseous form, making Saturn look like a giant comet.
At a distance of 80,778 miles (130,000 km), Earth would be inside Saturn’s Roche Limit, the distance at which the larger body tears apart the smaller one. Earth’s remnants would eventually form a new asteroid belt in orbit around the Sun.
The animation can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY2jv4GWUhQ.