Hey, Space Placers!
If you have been outside recently after it gets dark, you might have noticed a bright pair of “stars” in the southwest (SW) sky. SW is to the left of where the Sun sets. In reality these are the two giant gas planets, Jupiter, the brighter of the two, and Saturn. Even though they are separated by hundreds of millions of miles in the solar system, they have been moving closer and closer to one another in our sky for quite awhile.
On Monday, December 21st, they will be visible in the SW and at their closest approach to one another - a tenth-of-a-degree apart. The last time these two planets were this close and visible, was 1226. They were similarly close in 1623 but likely not easily visible due to their close proximity to the Sun.
This illustration shows the view facing southwest at dusk on December 21st. Jupiter should be an easy find, but Saturn may require careful scrutiny.
SkyandTelescope.org / Gregg Dinderman
They will be so close as to appear as a double planet. And to make this even more special, on the 21st at 5:02 a.m. EST, it is the Winter Solstice, the start of winter in the Northern hemisphere. The amount of daylight begins to increase each day following the Winter Solstice but the nights are long to enjoy the sky.
Astronomers call close groupings of astronomical objects conjunctions. And because this planetary conjunction is so close between Jupiter and Saturn it is known as a Great Conjunction.
To view this celestial spectacle is easy, just look in the SW sky as it gets dark after sunset. Pick a viewing spot that has a clear view of the horizon and is free of trees, buildings and bright lights. If you have binoculars it will enhance the view but the real treat comes with viewing in a telescope. Amateur telescopes properly adjusted will be able to view Jupiter and Saturn in the same field of view.
Here are tips from NASA on how to photograph this sky treat which can be done with any camera.
If the weather looks cloudy for you on Monday, it is worth a visual look to see if there are any breaks in the clouds. If it is “No Joy” - in other words the clouds win - all is not lost. You can tune in to Carnegie Astronomy’s live coverage of the Great Conjunction starting at 8 p.m. EST.
You can also enjoy the view when the clouds clear as the two planets will remain close and moving apart until they are no longer visible due to being lower in the sky and in bright skies.
Have a Happy Holiday season and stay safe and healthy.
Sky Guy in VA
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