Watch for the ‘Christmas Star’ as Jupiter and Saturn appear closer than they have in 800 years
Everywhere stargazers are pampered on Monday evening, as Jupiter and Saturn appear closer together than in centuries and form an astonishingly bright "Great conjunction".
"A conjunction is an astronomical term we use to describe when two objects are close together in the sky," Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, told Yahoo Life. "A major conjunction seems to define a particularly close conjunction."
Given that Monday's conjunction includes the two largest planets in our solar system, “great” is a term that this event certainly deserves, according to Faherty. "If you look west just after sunset on December 21st, you should see that Jupiter and Saturn are closer than they have ever been on the planet, only a tenth of a degree apart," she says.
While conjunctions occur roughly every 20 years, Faherty says that Jupiter and Saturn have not appeared as close together since 1623 - but that due to an overwhelming glare from the Sun's position, they would not have been visible from Earth at that time . "You have to go back to the year 1226 to get to the next best [conjunction] comparable to the one coming up on December 21st."
Jupiter hasn't changed much in brightness in the past 800 years, says Faherty. Anyone who caught a glimpse of the Great Conjunction of 1226 in the Middle Ages would have seen an almost identical sky as in 2020, but far less context. "We stand on the shoulders of scientific giants who have brought us to a point where we can assume that we understand that Jupiter and Saturn only have a brief moment in their apparent positions in the sky."
This great connection between Jupiter and Saturn was referred to as "poinsettia" not only because of the festive timing, but also because of the connections that may have historical references to astronomical events in the past, some experts theorize.
"What happens in astronomy that I think is really cool is that we can go through historical texts and find out when someone said something in a story or folklore that we can relate to an astronomical event," she says. "A biblical story told around Christmas time is of three wise men led by a star."
Faherty explains that two objects are close together and can blend into a bright point because the atmosphere tends to distort the way things look. "In that case, the idea of the star of Bethlehem could very well have just been a great union of Jupiter and Saturn that is bright and brilliant and no one would miss it."
Jupiter and Saturn appear over Maskinonge Pond in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Getty Images)
It's important to note that while planets appear close from our perspective, they are still quite far apart in space. “It doesn't mean that if you were on Jupiter you could just jump to Saturn. They're still about a hundred million miles apart, ”she explains. "Instead, they just seem to be close together in the sky because of our perspective of the earth as we go around the sun and their positions around the sun."
To observe the brilliance of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, Faherty opts for the darkest sky where you can see the Western Hemisphere and looks straight after sunset. "If you have a telescope, you would actually see the two [planets] very clearly separated from each other." Your other advice, stay a while. “Observe for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour. It's actually pretty cool to see them move through the sky together. You see the earth spinning. "
To make matters even more fascinating, the Great Conjunction happens to happen on the same winter solstice night, and while it may not correlate with the astronomical event, it marks the start of the season with the longest period of dark sky, perfect for star gazing.
According to Faherty, the next time Jupiter and Saturn will appear this close again in 2080, and then not for nearly 400 years in 2417, you won't want to miss the December 21st “Christmas star”.
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