Jupiter and Saturn align in 'Christmas star' effect

Katie Ramirez
January 28, 2021

To make one "great", though, requires an encounter between our solar system's two largest planets.

While Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the sky once every 20 years or so, the last time they were as close as during The Great Conjunction was back on March 4, 1226, or 794 years ago.

With the northern hemisphere's evening skies treated stargazers to a unique illusion Monday, the largest two planets in the solar system seemed to come closer in a celestial alignment which astronomers name " the Great Conjunction" - a type of planetary intimacy that won't recur until 2080.

If you missed it Monday night or the sky wasn't clear, fear not: The two planets only appear to move apart very slowly, and will still appear unusually close together in the coming days.

"Large telescopes don't help that much, modest binoculars are flawless, and even the eyeball is OK to see that they are right together", Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote in an email to Reuters. But hundreds of space fans also gathered in Kolkata to watch - through a telescope at a technology museum in the city, or from surrounding rooftops and open areas.

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Viewed through a telescope or even good binoculars, Jupiter and Saturn were no more than one-fifth the diameter of a full moon apart.

The heightened brightness of the two planets as they nearly merge in the sky has invited the inevitable speculation about whether they formed the "Christmas star" that the New Testament describes as having guided the three wise men to the baby Jesus.

It's called a planet conjunction and they appear to, from our viewpoint, from Earth...

Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Va.

Conjunctions that are this close are very unusual, according to the Royal Astronomical Society, and Jupiter and Saturn were last seen in such proximity in 1623. He managed to capture the ISS trail between Jupiter and Saturn during the conjunction - and he did it on film. They appear to come together in our viewing sky. On that occasion, the two planets were close to the sun in the sky, so they would have been hard to pick out.

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