The Great Conjunction: NASA explain upcoming space event
The Great Conjunction of 2020 promises to be one of the most exciting astronomical phenomena of the year. On Monday night – the day of the winter solstice – Saturn and Jupiter will come within 0.1 degrees of another – the closest the planets have come together in nearly 400 years. And you will not want to miss this potentially once-in-a-lifetime event, as the gas giants will not come this close again until March 2080.
Great Conjunctions like this happen once every 20 years but are sometimes hidden from sight.
When the planets came together in 2000, for example, the planets were near the Sun and hard to spot.
This time around the planets will shine brightly after sunset in the southwestern sky.
According to astronomer Tom Kerss, host of the Star Signs: Go Stargazing! podcast, it will be a fantastic sight even without a telescope or binoculars.
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Will Jupiter and Saturn form the Christmas Star on December 21?
Because of how close the two planets will approach one another, many people believe they will appear to form one object or “star” in the night sky.
And since the conjunction is happening just four days before Christmas, the event has been compared to the fabled Christmas Star of Bethlehem described in the New Testament.
Astronomers have in the past tried to explain this Biblical event though a Great Conjunction or comet flyby but there is little archaeological or historical evidence to substantiate it.
But what about December 21? Will the two planets merge into one or will they remain distinguishable to the naked eye?
According to Mr Kerss, there has been some confusion around the conjunction.
But odds are, weather permitting, you will be able to make out each planet individually.
The astronomer told Express.co.uk: “This is after all the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn for nearly 400 years gone by and another 60 years to come.
“In reality, provided the skies and horizon are clear where you are, both planets should be readily visible by eye.
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“They will be separated by six minutes or arc, which is one-tenth of a degree, or approximately one-sixth the width of the Full Moon.
“Under typical conditions, the eye can resolve two objects which are separated by one minute or arc.
“Jupiter will be about 10 times brighter than Saturn, but both are still quite pronounced as the glow of sunset fades.”
For comparison, the double-star Mizar-Alcor is made up of two bodies separated by about 10 minutes of an arc.
The stars sit at the kink of the handle in the Plough (Big Dipper) and have a six-fold difference in brightness.
Mr Kerss said: “Stargazers have no trouble seeing both of them, and Jupiter and Saturn will be comparable, but much brighter overall.
“In summary, it will be a fantastic sight even by eye, where the closeness will be very apparent.”
Keep your eyes peeled fairly low on the southwestern horizon on Monday night.
The planets will become visible after sunset and will set not long after.
When viewed from London, for example, Saturn and Jupiter will both dip below the horizon by 6.21pm GMT.
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