Tonight is the longest night of the year. You can use it to see a meteor shower and the historic Jupiter-Saturn 'double planet.'
On December 14, 2004, the Geminid meteor shower lit up the sky over the Popocatepetl volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla. Daniel Aguilar / Reuters
Monday brings with it the longest night of the year, along with the opportunity to observe a rare heavenly event.
Jupiter and Saturn appear so close to the sky that they seem to be touching. Their connection has not come this close since 1226.
At the same time, the Ursid meteor shower will let shooting stars sweep across the night sky.
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Monday evening brings an astronomical anomaly. It's the longest night of the year for the northern hemisphere - the winter solstice - and there will be both a meteor shower and a "double planet" that occurs once every 800 years.
You don't need a telescope to see any of this.
Jupiter and Saturn, as bright as stars in the night sky, appear so close together that they seem to be touching. Alignment or conjunction between these two planets occurs every 20 years, but the last time they looked this close from Earth was on March 4, 1226.
Saturn and Jupiter are seen from Shenandoah National Park after sunset on December 13 in Luray, Virginia. NASA / Bill Ingalls
At the same time, the Ursid meteor shower will peak, sending five to ten shooting stars an hour across the night sky. That's because the Earth will pass through the thickest part of a debris trail left by Comet 8P / Tuttle. When these pieces of ice and dust burn in the atmosphere, they can leave bright flares in the sky.
All of this will take place at the winter solstice, when the tilt of the earth's axis and the shape of its orbit will bring the northern hemisphere to its farthest point from the sun. This makes Monday the shortest day (and longest night) of the year for this half of the world.
You can take advantage of the long night to see the historic double planet and the bonus meteor shower.
How to see Jupiter and Saturn meeting in the midst of shooting stars
A girl observes the Perseid meteor shower in Kozjak, Macedonia on August 13, 2018. Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters
Jupiter and Saturn are more than four times as far apart as the earth and the sun. But on Monday evening they will be separated from each other in the sky by a distance about one-fifth the diameter of a full moon. According to NASA, a pinky finger at arm's length should easily cover both Jupiter and Saturn in the sky.
According to NASA, this "poinsettia", as the conjunction was called, should appear brighter than almost any star in the sky.
So you should be able to see it with the naked eye, especially when you are far from the city lights. A telescope or binoculars could help you spy on the planets' moons. According to NASA, your phone's camera could even take photos of the merging planets - if your timing is right.
"You need to have a clear southwestern horizon and no deep clouds in the distance," said Patrick Hartigan, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University, on his website.
It might be difficult for viewers in the US, Canada and Europe to see the conjunction as it will be low on the horizon, Hartigan said.
A graphic shows what the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will look like with the naked eye shortly after sunset in the northern hemisphere on December 21. NASA
"Viewing conditions are best around the equator, although it takes about an hour to observe this conjunction before the planets are haunted," he added.
To get an optimal view of the conjunction, go out towards evening (one hour after sunset) and point your telescope at the southwestern sky. (Sites like Stellarium can help you align your telescope.)
To catch the shooting stars, stay outside a little later. As soon as the moon goes down - after midnight - a dark sky provides a better backdrop to spot meteors.
If it is cloudy on Monday, don't worry. The conjunction lasts until December 25th. Solstice is exactly when the two planets are closest in the sky.
The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona will host a YouTube livestream of views through its telescopes starting at 7 p.m. ET on Monday. In Rome, the Virtual Telescope Project is also planning to share live views of the conjunction.
Aylin Woodward contributed to the coverage.
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