Let us all pray for a fine weather on Monday night because a rare celestial event is about to happen! The “Christmas Star” will be clearly visible as Jupiter and Saturn come closer to each other than they’ve ever been for nearly 400 years.
Though on the past days and for the rest of December, they will appear to be so close to each other in the post-sunset night sky.
The “Christmas Star” is basically the conjunction of the solar system’s two largest planets – Jupiter and Saturn – that they will look like a single, giant bright star. Tonight, we will see these planets at their closest point since 1623, and the best since 1226.
“They’re not close in space – they’re still hundreds of millions of kilometers apart from each other said, NASA Astronomer Henry Throop. “But … they appear as two points very close in the sky … in fact they’re so close that if you extend your pinky at arms length you’ll be able to cover both planets with just your pinky finger.”
It will be visible just after sunset in the southwestern sky, and will take place low to the horizon.
Stargazers (or planet gazers) can’t waste any time as these two planets will sink below the horizon just two hours after sunset.
In binoculars or a wide-field telescope the two planets will still appear close to each other. If you do have a telescope with high magnification it should reveal the spectacular sight of the rings of Saturn, the cloud belts of Jupiter and four of Jupiter’s moons (Ganymede, Europa, Callisto and Io) all in the same field of view, according to Forbes.
“In order to find the planets in the sky, it’s really easy if you just look up. If you can see the sunset – that means you are looking to the west, the southwest if you are in the northern hemisphere – then you’ll be able to see Saturn and Jupiter,” said Throop.
For those who would like to see this phenomenon for themselves, here’s what to do, according to NASA:
- 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.
This planetary conjunction is part of the solar system’s celestial clockworks. Jupiter orbits the sun every 11.86 years. Ringed Saturn, meanwhile, circles ever 29.46 years. They regularly line up in the sky about once every 20 years or so, but only rarely are they quite so closely aligned.
While many think this phenomenon is largely associated to Christmas and the star of Bethlehem as mentioned in the New Testament, astronomers say this is just pairing of the planets. Though believing such wouldn’t hurt in any way, and the “Christmas Star” remains quite an extraordinary occurrence no matter how one interprets it.
NASA says after this month’s event, you’ll have to hang in there until 2080 to catch the next great conjunction of similar proximity.