'Great Conjunction': Earthlings treated to rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn

By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The evening sky over the northern hemisphere treated stargazers on Monday with a one-of-a-kind illusion as the solar system's two largest planets appeared to meet in a celestial alignment that astronomers call the "Great Conjunction".
The rare spectacle resulted from a near convergence of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, which happened to coincide with the winter solstice on Monday, the shortest day of the year. To those who could observe the alignment under a clear sky, the two frozen gas spheres appeared closer and more alive - almost as a single point of light - than ever before in 800 years.
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Jupiter - the brighter and larger of the pair - has been gradually approaching Saturn in the sky for weeks as the two planets move around the sun, each on its own track of a vast celestial racetrack, said Henry Throop, an astronomer at National Aeronautics and headquarters Washington Space Administration.
"From our point of view, we can see Jupiter on the inner track, approaching Saturn all month, and finally overtaking him on December 21," Throop said in a statement last week.
At the time of convergence, Jupiter and Saturn appeared to be only a tenth of a degree apart, which is roughly the thickness of a cent held at arm's length. In reality, of course, the planets stayed hundreds of millions of miles apart, according to NASA.
A connection between the two planets takes place about every 20 years. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were as close together in the sky as they were on Monday was in 1623, an alignment that occurred in daylight and therefore was not visible from most places on Earth.
The last major connection visible occurred long before the telescope was invented in 1226, when construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris began in 1226.
The increased brightness of the two planets, which are almost merging in the sky, has sparked the inevitable speculation as to whether they formed the "poinsettia" that the New Testament describes as if they had led the three wise men to the baby Jesus.
However, astronomer Billy Teets, acting director of the Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University in Brentwood, Tennessee, said a major conjunction was just one of several possible explanations for the biblical phenomenon.
"I think there is a lot of debate about what that could have been," Teets said in a recent interview with WKRN-TV in Nashville.
Astronomers suggested that the best way to see Monday's conjunction was to look southwest in an open area about an hour after sunset.
"Big telescopes don't help much, modest binoculars are perfect, and even the ball of the eye is fine to see they fit together properly," wrote Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in an email to Reuters .
The next major connection between the two planets - if not nearly as close together - will take place in November 2040. A closer alignment similar to Monday will take place in March 2080, McDowell said, with the following close association 337 years later in August 2417.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sonya Hepinstall)

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