Jupiter and Saturn to overlap in sky tonight: "Aligned just right"
Astronomer Christopher De Pree has been seeing something invisible from Earth since Galileo first pointed his telescope at the stars. The two largest planets of our solar system in one viewfinder: Jupiter and Saturn.
For the whole month, shortly after sunset, Skywatchers have captured the two planets, which are slowly coming together in the southwestern sky.
Monday evening they overlap and appear to merge into a single source of light. It's called an astronomical conjunction.
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In Metro Atlanta, De Pree heads the Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College. He told CBS News' Mark Strassmann how close Saturn and Jupiter will actually be to each other.
Tonight the planets Jupiter and Saturn seem to merge. / Credit: CBS News
"Oh, they're hundreds of millions of miles apart," said De Pree.
"A bit of a cosmic trick of the eye," replied Strassmann.
"Yes, exactly. Just like constellations," said De Pree. "It's like a big machine just going forward. And on the 21st, all of these pieces are all aligned just right so that these two planets get really, really close."
This great machine is our solar system, which is constantly in motion. Every 20 years Jupiter overtakes Saturn and both planets align with Earth.
"It is true that these two planets actually came close 20 years ago," said De Pree. "But you couldn't see them up in the sky. They were too close to the sun. The big difference here is that you can actually see them after dark and that's the unusual thing about it."
The last visible connection of this proximity was in 1226 - almost 800 years ago.
The conjunction on Monday evening falls on the winter solstice like a "Star of Bethlehem for Christmas week 2020".
"Since the entire solar system is such a clockwork, you can turn the clock back thousands of years and see where the planets would have been at that time in the past," said De Pree. "Kepler is one of the astronomers who actually assumed that the 'Star of Bethlehem' could have been a planetary conjunction."
"Given the rarity of this moment, how crazy will it be when it's cloudy?" Asked Strassmann.
"Well, as an astronomer, I'm used to it," said De Pree. "You know, if you can go out the night before or the night after, it will still be an impressive sight."
And it won't happen for 60 years.
"I mean, for me, some of the best experiences you can have while looking at the night sky are the ones that don't require anything," said De Pree. "You don't need a telescope. You don't need binoculars. You just look at the night sky."
All you need is your starry curiosity.
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