Many of us will experience a yuletide season like no other, due to the current pandemic. It is sad, but a reality we all must face. However, for some of us, December 21, 2020, the date of the winter solstice, an extremely rare event will “shine” upon us. The rare planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter will treat us to a sight for the first time in around 800 years.
The unique event will present stargazers with a rare treat, Jupiter and Saturn will appear extremely close to one another, making it look like they may collide with each other and become one extremely luminous point of light.
According to astronomer Patrick Hartigan, from Rice University in Houston, Texas, “Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another.” He added, “you’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.”
However, the two planets will not be really close to each other, consider the distance of earth to the sun as an example. Astronomers use astronomical units (au) distances in the massive expanse of our galaxy. Jupiter lies 5 au from earth, and Saturn about 10 au. Jupiter and Saturn have been headed towards each other in the night sky since summer. And, from December 16-25, they will appear to be separated by less than the diameter of a full moon. Astronomers explain that the best views will be seen in areas around the equator, but with good weather, the alignment will be visible from any location on Earth.
Jupiter and Saturn will also be clear during the twilight, about for an hour after sunset, but best observed with a telescope. Hartigan explains, “On the evening of closest approach on December 21 they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of a full moon. For most telescope viewers, each planet and several of their largest moons will be visible in the same field of view that evening.” However, he adds, “The further north a viewer is, the less time they’ll have to catch a glimpse of the conjunction before the planets sink below the horizon.”
For those who need assistance as to where you should look for this event, you may consult websites like Stellarium. In the unfortunate event that you don’t catch this rare happening, you can wait until March 15, 2080 (if you are young enough). The next time after that would be sometime in 2400.
Definitely this Christmas will be different, that is the new normal. But better to be safe right? There are other ways we can find to enjoy the season, and for those with telescopes, well, you have an advantage. Enjoy the Christmas season.
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