It finally is time for the rare celestial phenomenon we have all been waiting for – the Great Conjunction of the two largest planets in the Solar System. After months of getting closer to each other, the two gas giants will finally make their “encounter” tonight!
Of course, Great Conjunctions occur once approximately every 20 years but as special and different 2020 was for us, this conjunction will also be more special. This encounter will be one of the closest recorded in history as the two planets will have an angular distance of only 0.1° in between. For the naked human eye, the two planets will literally shine as one.
Such a Great Conjunction has not occurred since 1623 and before that – 1226. In other words, you need to see it if even if the stars are not something you normally look at in the evening.
I have to mention that this phenomenon will be visible from all over the world but people in Europe have the biggest luck as it will continue for the longest period.
Although the planets have been getting closer to each other in the sky for months now, the official Great Conjunction today will begin at 16:00 UTC. If you do not know how to convert this to your current time, here is an explanation. In short, it should begin shortly after sunset and will continue for about 2 hours until it is no longer visible.
With high hopes that there will be fewer clouds tonight, we will see the two planets as bright spots. Surprisingly, they will be visible even in polluted cities where the night sky is dark and starless. Simply look at about 10 to 15 degrees above the horizon.
If you happen to be in possession of a good pair of binoculars, you may actually also see Jupiter’s four largest moons. And with a decent telescope, the sight will be even more unique. Even with 50x magnification, you should see the Great Conjunction, several of the planet’s moons, and even Saturn’s rings.
Another option is to watch the show online. A number of astronomical groups around the world have plans to broadcast the event live.
Another tip from NASA is that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn can be easily photographed with DSLR cameras and many smartphone cameras. It is suggested to use the “night mode” function on an iPhone, Pixel, or Galaxy to get a stable long exposure photo.
A Double-Event: The Great Conjunction and the Winter Solstice
As an added bonus to the Great Conjunction, stargazers will receive another significant astronomical event. The winter solstice will also take place today, the longest night of the year, after which the days will get longer every day and the nights will be shorter. The fact that the solstice and the convergence of Saturn and Jupiter will take place on the same day is just a coincidence, astronomers say.
“The date of conjunction is determined by the position of Jupiter, Saturn and the Earth on their path around the Sun, and the date of the solstice is determined by the tilt of the earth’s axis. The Solstice is the longest night of the year, so this rare coincidence will give people a great chance to go outside and see the solar system.” said NASA astronomer Henry Troop.
After this great conjunction ends, we will all need to wait 60 years until the next. Another rendezvous of the giant planets, on which they will be separated by just six arc minutes, will take place on March 15, 2080.
Until then, we will have the chance to see them come together once every 20 years but the sight will not be nearly as spectacular. In other words: don’t miss this cosmic encounter even if you are not a stargazer like us from Curiosmos.
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• Byrd, D., & McClure, B. (n.d.). Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction is December 21.
• Clark, S. (2020, December 21). How to see Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction on winter solstice.
• How to Photograph the Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter – NASA Solar System Exploration. (2020, December 15).
• Mathewson, S. (2020, December 18). ‘Great Conjunction’ 2020: NASA tips to see Jupiter and Saturn shine as a ‘Christmas Star’.