Sunday, 07 March, 2021


Great Conjunction 2020: Why Is This Jupiter-Saturn Alignment So Rare?

Jupiter-Saturn conjunction Bethlehem Star Dennis Mammana: Celestial Giants Jupiter, Saturn Headed to Once-in-Your-Lifetime ‘Merger’
Kristine Garrett | 17 December, 2020, 20:56

Jupiter and Saturn - the largest planets in our solar system - have been visible in the sky since spring, with Jupiter being the brightest of the two; it is also the second-brightest planet in the sky after Venus.

A conjunction is when two objects look very close to the naked eye in our sky, but the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is called a great conjunction and only happens once every 20 years. This year would also mark the first time in nearly 800 years since the alignment of the two gas giants occurred at night. The Star of Bethlehem (aka "Christmas Star")-the same very celestial object the "wise men from the east" are said to have used to navigate their way to the birthplace of Jesus-is reported to shine in the heavens at some point during this conjunction.

On Monday, Dec 21, stargazers should look towards the waxing crescent moon, in the west 45 minutes after sunset.

It is understood Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered four moons of Jupiter in 1610 and in that same year spotted a rings around Saturn, changing our understanding of the galaxy.

A skychart showing how to find the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21.

According to NASA researchers, while the gaseous planets may appear as one from Earth, they are actually hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. The last Great Conjunction was in May 2000, but it was hard to see due to its position in the sky.

This year's conjunction occurs on the border of the modern astronomical constellations of Sagittarius and Capricornus.

Coming so close to Christmas, some astronomers believe that the famous Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in the Bible nativity story, may have been an astronomical conjunction of the planets.

Known as a Great Conjunction, the two planets will be visibly at their closest to each other on Monday. But this will be the closest the pair will get for the next 60 years, so try to catch it if you can. However, the astronomical start of the chilly season will not be until December 21, 2020.

Stargazers are already looking up at the sky, anticipating something that no one has seen in 800 years, as the orbit paths of Saturn and Jupiter overlap, bringing both gas giants into the same field of view. "Every once in a while, two planets appear close together along our line of sight".

Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia.

Although there will be gorgeous views from Mt Ainslie and Black Mountain, Dr Tucker advised, you don't need to be in a dark area; you should be able to see it from your neighbourhood nature strip or oval, or even from your own home.

Look to the south-west from about 4.30pm United Kingdom time on Monday December 21, 2020, for the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. We say "may" because the precise position of the planets over extremely long periods of time are subject to tiny gravitational perturbations from each other, and those minuscule effects do add up to a small amount of uncertainty when we look out over tens of thousands of years.

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