A rare cosmic occurrence is underway where two of the biggest planets in our solar system will appear to merge in the night sky. This occurrence is happening for the second time since Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s characteristic rings.
According to astronomers, the so-called conjunctions between the two largest planets in our solar system aren’t very rare as Jupiter passes Saturn during their orbit around the sun in every 20 years. However, the occurrence is exceptionally rare as Saturn will be much closer to the biggest planet in the solar system.
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Jupiter and Saturn will be just one-tenth of a degree apart from our perspective or about one-fifth the width of a full moon. The occurrence is easily visible around the world a little after sunset. It will be the closest Jupiter-Saturn pairing since July 1623. However, it might have been almost impossible to see due to its closeness to the sun.
A view comparable to today would date way back to 1226, when the planets were much closer and were easily visible in the night sky. Since Saturn is farther and smaller than Jupiter it will be slightly difficult to spot it apart from Jupiter.
For those interested in viewing the once in many lifetimes event, Nasa has released a set of guidelines to help spot the Great Conjuction. Here’s how to go about it:
- Find a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, such as a field or park. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen even from most cities.
- An hour after sunset, look to the southwestern sky. Jupiter will look like a bright star and be easily visible. Saturn will be slightly fainter and will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until December 21, when Jupiter will overtake it and they will reverse positions in the sky.
- The planets can be seen with the unaided eye, but if you have binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting the giant planet.
21 December also marks winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest night of the year and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
“What is most rare is a close conjunction that occurs in our nighttime sky,” said Vanderbilt University’s David Weintraub, an astronomy professor.