Jupiter and Saturn - Closest They Have Been in Centuries

Katie Ramirez
December 16, 2020

Keep an eye on these two planets over the next few days and you will be able to watch as their orbital motion (combined with that of the Earth) carries them closer and closer in the sky.

A Great Conjunction is the apparent coming together of two giants of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn.

When they are at their maximum conjunction, to the naked eye they may look like one extra-bright star.

A skychart showing how to find the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. Specifically, it's used to describe the moment that the two planets are at their closest apparent point together in the sky. The last time the phenomenon was visible from Earth (1226 AD), the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe was still thriving in the north of South Africa and Europe was in the Dark Ages. In fact, Jupiter and Saturn will remain less than one angular degree apart (easily close enough to hide behind your pinky at arm's length) until December 30, and closer than 30' (the angular diameter of a Full Moon) from December 17 to the 25. Gas giants will be closer to the night sky during Christmas for centuries. The author hides Jupiter and Saturn behind a thumb. In early December, the two planets will be about two degrees apart, and will get progressively close toward December 21. In fact, you might have your best view of these planets in a few days: on December 16 and 17 the moon will pass near the planetary pair.

Use a tripod - if you don't have one, keep your camera steady by leaning on something solid, like a fence or auto. Be sure to check out the respective retinue of moons for each as they slide by one another in the sky.

How Jupiter, with its four Galilean moons, and Saturn could appear on December 21 through high quality binoculars. Image credit and copyright: Ralph Smyth.

Far-away Planets like Jupiter take almost 12 years to lap the Sun and Saturn takes around 30 years to do the same thing! Someone with extremely strong eyesight, or binoculars, spotting scope or telescope, they will remain 2 distinct objects, albeit very close. Thirteen years later in 1623, Jupiter and Saturn travelled together across the sky, with Jupiter catching up to Saturn and passing it in the first reported "Great Conjunction". From De Stella Nova, 1606. Most of us will be old coots by then, so if you want a story to tell your potential grandkids, about how you saw the legendary "Christmas Star", here is your chance.

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Astronomers have dubbed this romantic spectacle "The Great Conjunction".

Such is the rarity of the "Christmas star" that astrologers say it won't be seen again for 60 years - making this a once in a lifetime event for star lovers.

Can Jupiter ever occult Saturn?

The Siouxland Proud report states that according to NASA the next great conjunction won't happen until 2080.

One especially intriguing event "may" occur on (mark your calendars) June 21, 7541 AD, when Jupiter may actually occult (pass in front of) Saturn. The planets, Saturn's rings and some of the moons should be visible even at low magnification.

"Every night, Jupiter and Saturn are appearing closer and closer in the night sky as their orbits and ours carry us closer to alignment".

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