Catch an Awe-Inspiring Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st
By DAVID DICKINSON, Universe Today
Dozens of planetary conjunctions grace our skies every year, as two planets seem to pair up as seen from our Earthly vantage point. Many are speedy affairs, as fast-moving inner worlds such as Mercury and Venus lap the sky, visiting the Moon, planets and stars along the ecliptic.
What’s more unusual is to spy a pairing up of the two slowest moving naked eye outer planets, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s just what happens next Monday, as Jupiter meets Saturn on the December 21st solstice. The two worlds will appear to be just 6.1 arcminutes (’) apart at ~18:00 Universal Time (UT) (1:00 PM EST), 30 degrees east of the Sun.
Though the two largest planets in the solar system lap each other once a generation (roughly once every 20 years), this conjunction is especially close: in fact, it won’t be topped until March 15, 2080 (6.1’). You have to go all the way back to July 16, 1623, to find one closer (5.2’ apart), though that particular conjunction was much lower in the sky and much more difficult to spot, at just 13 degrees from the Sun.
The last easily visible pairing of Jupiter and Saturn topping this year’s conjunction was on the morning of March 5, 1226 AD.
Though the timing of its closest approach favours longitudes centered on Europe and Africa, you can see the two getting closer night-by-night worldwide this week, going into this weekend. In fact, Jupiter and Saturn will remain less than one angular degree apart (easily close enough to hide behind your pinky at arm’s length) until December 30th, and closer than 30’ (the angular diameter of a Full Moon) from December 17th to the 25th.
The two planets will almost seem to touch on the evening of the 21st, though in reality, the two gas giants are 883 million kilometres (548.7 million miles) apart. Jupiter shines at magnitude -2, while Saturn is just seven times fainter, at magnitude +0.6. The razor-thin waxing crescent Moon just misses occulting the pair by three degrees on the evening of Wednesday, December 16th. (photo-op!)
Be sure to crank up the magnification, as you’ll have the rare opportunity to fit both solar system gas giants in the same field of view. You’re looking at over 90% of the planetary mass of the entire Solar System, right in one convenient view. Jupiter is 33 arcseconds (”) across on the night of the conjunction, while Saturn is 36” (with rings) from tip-to-tip. Be sure to check out the respective retinue of moons for each as they slide by one another in the sky.
Looking back from the local vicinity of Saturn, you’d see Jupiter slide just 7’ past the Earth, with both just three degrees from the Sun.
17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler placed great significance in the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler was the last great astronomer who also subscribed in part to the archaic practice of astrology, and he scrutinized at length what he termed as the ‘great conjunctions,’ or repeating patterns of conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn returning to the same astrological house every 60 years.
These ‘trines’ or triads of great conjunctions held great sway over Kepler’s thinking, leading him to suggest that the Star of Bethlehem was related to a close pairing of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. in Pisces the Fishes, a sign long associated with Judaism.
This year’s conjunction occurs on the border of the modern astronomical constellations of Sagittarius and Capricornus. With the conjunction falling just a few days before Christmas, expect the annual discussion of “what was the star of Bethlehem?” to come to the fore once again… though biblical and historical references to the actual event are so scant, we’ll probably never truly know for sure.
Looking Into the Far Future
Can Jupiter ever occult Saturn? Well, we looked at 20,000 years worth of conjunctions (it’s what we do for fun) and found 58 close (less than 10’ apart) conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn over 200 centuries, with only 11 in the 2000 year span from 1000 AD to 3000 AD… but only 5 that are closer than the conjunction in 2020.
Close (less than 10′ apart) conjunctions of Jupiter vs. Saturn over the span of 2000 years, from 1000 AD to 3000 AD. Credit: Dave Dickinson
One especially intriguing event ‘may’ occur on (mark your calendars) June 21, 7541 AD, when Jupiter may actually occult (pass in front of) Saturn. This will certainly pose a bizarre spectacle, as the moons of the two intertwine, and Jupiter dons Saturn’s rings!
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.
To be sure, there’s not much in terms of scientific value behind next Monday night’s conjunction, but the spectacle offers a wonderful opportunity to show off the two worlds at the eyepiece, while we contemplate the clockwork universe and how it provides us with such rare views across time and space.
Fraser Cain, a Comox Valley native, is the publisher and founder of Universe Today, one of the world’s leading websites on outer space. It is headquartered in the Comox Valley.
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Well-known community activist Wayne Bradley suffered a short battle with cancer.
Premier John Horgan should keep his promise to implement the recommendation of the Old-Growth Review Panel and place a moratorium on logging old-growth trees in British Columbia, say participants in the BC Forest March
Comox Valley Nature is taking nominations for the Tree of the Year until April 1.
The Comox Valley Regional District did the right thing in terminating the CVEDS contract. But they did it for the wrong reasons.
Decafnation’s Local Government Performance Review was designed to shed light on why people felt a certain way rather than predict some outcome through statistics.
Comox Valley Nature present free webinar lecture on the importance of herring to the Salish Sea ecosystem and the effects of hard shoring our coastline
Local elections are not that far away; don’t feel sorry for people who travelled out of country; and, based on Alberta’s level of thinking, the human race is doomed
The Comox Valley Regional District has formally recognized its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in a statement adopted by the board last week
During the recent aluminium tariff “trade war” between the US and Canada, the lowly beer can became a sign of the entire debacle. It began on August 6 when the US announced a ten per cent tariff on aluminium from Canada.
A new study shows that when newspapers close and nobody is watching, the cost of government rises. That’s one reason why Decafnation shines its light on local governments