How to watch Monday night's Great Conjunction from anywhere
How to see the great conjunction from anywhere on Monday evening
On the evening of December 21st, watch the western sky in the hours just after sunset. There, deep on the horizon, you can see a very bright solstice star emerging from dusk. However, this is not a star. It is actually the planets Jupiter and Saturn that seem to have merged into an event known as the Great Conjunction.
Jupiter and Saturn have been a constant sight in our night sky so far in 2020. During spring and the first half of summer, these two bright planets came closer together as they approached their "opposites" with Earth. Jupiter reached opposition on July 14th when it was exactly on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. Saturn opposition was on July 20th. At that time, they appeared very close to the sky.
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After that, the two seemed to pull away from each other quite easily by the end of September. Since then, night after night, they have been slowly approaching again.
Just a few hours after the winter solstice, on Monday evening, December 21st, they will be close enough to the sky that they appear to have merged to the naked eye. This is the great conjunction of 2020, and the next one we've seen so well in nearly 800 years!
HOW TO VIEW FROM ANYWHERE
Monday evening's cloud forecast is not particularly good across Canada to see this great conjunction!
Even so, there are still opportunities to watch regardless of local sky conditions. The Lowell Observatory - the site from which Clyde Tombaugh discovered the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930 - is hosting an event from Flagstone, Arizona. Your event will be broadcast live on YouTube at 7 p.m. EST (5 p.m. MST). Check out the embedded video below:
WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?
When Earth, Jupiter and Saturn orbit the sun, we complete one revolution per year, while Jupiter takes 11.8 years and Saturn takes 29.5 years. From our point of view, the two bright gas giants in our sky come into harmony every 19.6 years. Astronomers call these alignments large conjunctions.
However, not all major conjunctions are created equal. To most, the couple seem pretty close together, certainly enough to be noticed. Even so, we'll have to go back quite a long way to find one that is comparable to what we'll see in 2020.
"You would have to go back to just before sunrise on March 4, 1226 to see closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky," said Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan in a press release.
According to Hartigan's records, Jupiter and Saturn will be only a tenth of a degree apart at this year's Great Conjunction. That's 6.1 arc minutes for the astronomers out there. For non-astronomers, if you keep your hand at arm's length, palm away from you, and just extend your pinky finger. The width of this finger is approximately 1 degree, or 60 minutes of arc.
The positions of Jupiter and Saturn in the solar system relative to Earth, from the Saturn opposition on July 20th to the Great Conjunction on December 21st, with views of Earth. Photo credit: Celestia / Scott Sutherland
Technically, this is the next major conjunction since July 16, 1623, when Jupiter and Saturn were only 5.2 arc minutes apart. However, Hartigan points out that without special equipment it would have been very difficult to see the event of 1623 from Earth. From our point of view, the two planets were too close to the sun. So it was lost in the twilight. Jupiter and Saturn were even closer until March 4, 1226 than they were this year (only 2.1 arc minutes apart). They were also high enough above the horizon that anyone could have seen them with the naked eye.
Now, in 2020, it will take some planning to see this grand conjunction for ourselves. Jupiter and Saturn are almost on the other side of the sun than earth on December 21st. Therefore, after sunset, they will be very close to the horizon. So while we don't need to find a particularly dark place to see this, we do need an excellent view of the horizon. This means a tall building or other high vantage point or wide open field without obscuring the horizon.
Definitely worth making plans to see this event if you can. We won't see one in 60 years.
WHY SO RARE?
With these conjunctions, which take place every 19.6 years, one might ask: Why don't Jupiter and Saturn overlap each time?
The answer lies in the inclination or inclination of the orbits of the two planets. Jupiter's orbit is inclined a little more than 1.3 degrees compared to Earth's orbit. Meanwhile, Saturn's orbit is tilted nearly 2.5 degrees. Those are small angles, but when you are talking about planets millions of kilometers away, it is enough to make sure that they are only aligned that well at certain times.
Tilt Jupiter Saturn orbits
The inclinations of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn compared to the orbit of Earth. As indicated in the diagram, the scales have been exaggerated for emphasis. Photo credit: Scott Sutherland
IS THAT THE CHRISTMAS STAR?
As Jupiter and Saturn drew closer in the night sky, some called their upcoming conjunction "The Poinsettia".
However, since the event takes place specifically at the winter solstice, the name is not entirely correct. By Christmas the two planets will have grown apart noticeably. To be fair, based on timing in particular, it would be more appropriate to refer to this event as the "Solstice Star".
Solstice Star Christmas
A comparison of Jupiter and Saturn just after sunset on December 21st and 25th. Photo credit: Stellarium / Scott Sutherland
Still, the event raises the question: What was the poinsettia?
In the biblical story of the birth of Jesus told in the Gospel of Matthew, three kings or wise men are said to have followed a star to which Jesus was born. Of course, this may simply have been an embellishment of Matthew. Since neither the birth of Jesus nor the manger is mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and John, and only shepherds are present in Luke's version, there is nothing to support his version of the story.
Still, astronomers have been trying for some time to reconcile Matthew's account of the Star of Bethlehem with various astronomical events.
Given the precision with which the stars and planets move across our skies, astronomers can effectively turn back the clock to see their locations long ago. If there was a real object (or combination of objects) in the sky at that point, they should be able to find it. There seems to be some consensus among biblical scholars that Jesus said sometime during the summer months between the years 6-4 BC. Was born. However, some scholars said it sometime between the years 3-2 BC.
Looking back at this time, some candidates were proposed:
bright Jupiter-Venus conjunctions, 3 BC BC and 2 BC Chr.,
a supernova (known to have generated the binary pulsar PSR 1913 + 16b) in February 4 BC.
a "triplet" of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions in 7 BC
an unnamed comet in 4 BC
In all of these cases, however, the timing is not entirely the same or requires a very specific interpretation or translation of Matthew's account. Without more accurate historical references, or without uncovering a lost text of ancient astronomical records that provides more candidates, it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure.
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