A Christmas Spectacular

In less than two weeks, on December 21, 2020 to be exact, there will be a special astronomical event: the closest great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 397 years. Yes, the year 2020 is trying to redeem itself by ending with a Christmas spectacular.

This occurrence is a must-see event. This Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will be the closest meet-up of these two gas giants, observable from earth, for nearly 800 years. From our perspective they will be so close that they will appear as a double planet, so close that the two giant planets can be seen in the field of a telescope or binoculars. 

Jupiter and Saturn will still be separated by hundreds of millions of miles, but to us, they will look like a “Christmas Star”.  Jamie Carter, a science writer for Forbes, reports that this “star” will actually be formed by the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn as viewed from Earth. Their appearance as a bright “double planet” was last observable from Earth on March 4, 1226.

After almost 800 years it can be seen in our night sky again. You don’t have to use telescope or binoculars, although they would be helpful. Here is how to be sure you don’t miss this once in a lifetime event: find a good viewing spot where tall buildings or mountains don’t obscure your view of the low southwestern horizon. Get to your viewing spot 15 to 30 minutes before nightfall. Right before and after  sunset the conjunction should be visible in most of the continental USA. We Southerners are in luck because the further north you the harder it will be to see. If you miss it on December 21, do not despair the two planets will still appear pretty close over the next few days according to Amy C. Oliver, a spokeswoman for the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian. She told the New York Times that on the days before and after Dec. 21, “as soon as it gets dark outside, everybody should go outside and take a look. For most adults, this is your one big opportunity to see this. Really young kids might get another chance. For the rest of us, it’s now or never.”

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