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Science / Space

On Winter Solstice, Jupiter And Saturn Will Be Side By Side

Great Conjunction.JPG
Bishop Museum of Science and Nature
Technically, the two largest planets in our solar system will still be hundreds of millions of miles apart. But from our vantage point on earth, they’ll look like they’re nearly touching.

The last time Jupiter and Saturn came this close was 1623, but that conjunction was too near the sun to be seen on Earth. The most recent visible to humans was 800 years ago.

For the next two weeks, Jupiter and Saturn will get closer and closer in the sky.

The alignment of the two largest planets in our solar system happens every 20 years or so, but it’s been nearly 800 years since they've come this close.

Astronomers are calling it the Great Conjunction of 2020.

Howard Hochhalter, planetarium manager at Bradenton's Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, says the celestial event will be easy to see.

"For the casual observer which is going to largely be most people out there, you don't need any optical equipment,” he said. “It’s like saying you don't need a scuba tank and a mask to enjoy the ocean."

But Hochhalter says amateur astronomers should enjoy pulling their telescopes out too. Seeing both planets in a viewfinder will be historic.

"Like sitting down in a diner and finding James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting on either side of you,” he said. “To see one would be one thing, to see the other is the other but to see them both at the same time, you wouldn’t want to pass up that opportunity."

Hochhalter says you’d have to go back to medieval times to see a closer alignment between the two planets.

"The view lines Jupiter and Saturn up in such a precise way that they appear to come so close to each other that it will be very difficult actually to split the two," he said. “They'll merge so close together it will look almost like a singular bright object. They'll be about .1 degree apart."

The radiant point of light coming to the night sky is also being referred to as the Christmas Star.

Astronomers have long theorized that the biblical nativity star may have been a middle ages version of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction.

“What people understand is that this will give them a visual marker years from now,” said Hochhalter. “A lot of humans will be talking about this in 20 years.

Stargazers should cast their eyes and telescopes to the southwest portion of the sky just after sunset on Monday, Dec. 21, to witness the conjunction.

On Dec. 23, Hochhalter will present a program with Bishop Curator Tiffany Birakis to explore how different cultures around the ancient world ascribed meaning to the movement of the stars and planets, including the Star of Bethlehem.

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