OUTER SPACE — They have been up there much longer than us, and we will be long gone before they disappear, but Saturn and Jupiter will be joined in this year’s Great Conjunction for only a wisp of a cosmic moment.
As anticipation for the Great Conjunction of 2020 builds, where Saturn and Jupiter will coalesce into one point of light on Monday, Dec. 21, two Utah astronomers offer their insight and advice for fellow stargazers.
“I’m not pushing the brightness or even the neatness of this event,” NASA Solar System Ambassador Patrick Wiggins said of the event’s importance. “I’m pushing the rareness.”
Wiggins is not exaggerating when he said if you make the effort to see the robustly bright point of light that will be Saturn and Jupiter next Monday, you will behold a sight not previously seen by any of your fellow travelers on Earth. Not since the days of Galileo, who was the first to spot Jupiter’s satellites in a telescope, have the two gas giants appeared as close, NASA reported.
BYU Astronomy Professor Denise Stephens has encouraged her astronomy students to look for the two planets after they go home for Christmas. They should be able to witness them join together, no matter where they are in the world, Stephens said.
Back in Utah, however, we may face unique challenges. First, you must be quick.
“It’s gonna be kind of a race,” Wiggins said of the need to look for the conjunction early.
Both astronomers suggest observing the sky about an hour after sunset on when the two planets will be low enough on the horizon that mountains to the west may block the view. To find out if this is a problem for you, Wiggins suggested going out right now and tracking Jupiter and Saturn each night. If you can’t see them today because of an obstruction, you won’t see them on the 21st.
Plus, if you start observing the two planets now, you will notice them drawing closer together each night. This is seeing “the Solar System in motion,” said Wiggins.
Utah’s erratic weather can also stop the show. Starlight can’t shine through cloud cover, however, Jupiter is bright enough to break through the northern Utah inversion, Wiggins said.
Jupiter is the first bright “star-like” object to appear above the southwest horizon, and Saturn, somewhat dimmer, follows above it and to the left, Wiggins explained. Unlike much of the world right now, on Dec. 21, the two planets will not be social distancing. From Earth, it will appear the two are separated by the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length. However, both Wiggins and Stephens again caution not to expect any change in brightness.
Though many are calling this a Christmas Star, that doesn’t mean the two planets will be giving off extra light. Many believe the Star of Bethlehem could have been a planetary conjunction. Stephens said if this were the case, it would have stood out symbolically to the Magi, not necessarily visually. A Saturn-Jupiter conjunction, which occurred around 7-8 BC, could have signaled to the anticipatory Wise Men the birth of a merciful and just king – Jupiter representing mercy, and Saturn representing justice. A later Jupiter-Venus conjunction could have carried a similar meaning, Stephens explained.
Asked about the significance of this year’s Great Conjunction, Stephens said, “I’m going to choose to see it as a sign of better things to come.”
How this highly publicized astronomical event will shine, however, is through the right optics.
“Looking through a telescope, which has a very narrow field of view, and to be able to see two planets at the same time is a rare event,” Wiggins stated.
The diehard astronomer said he will start his observing even before the sun goes down, though he doesn’t recommend that to greener astronomers. But anyone with even the most basic of telescopes should be able to see both Saturn and Jupiter at the same time in their telescope’s eyepiece. Jupiter and Saturn are two of the three objects in the sky people that impress people the most, he attested. He himself remembers his first sighting of Saturn as a child being “incredible!”
The next Great Conjunction is in 80 years, said Wiggins. That means children have a great shot at becoming repeat eye-witnesses, not unlike the Halley’s Two Timers’ Club, those of a previous generation who saw Halley’s Comet in 1910 and again in 1983. His advice to the youth: Draw a picture of what you see. When the next Great Conjunction rolls around, you will have a good story to tell — with proof.
If you don’t own a telescope, a pair of binoculars will be almost as good. Wiggins said with 20x magnification, you will be able to make out Jupiter’s four satellites and the bulge of Saturn’s rings.
But if all you can muster is simple, naked-eye observing, that is OK too. “Do look at it with your eyeball!” Wiggins encouraged.
Stephens offered the same enthusiasm.
“This will be a great way to end 2020,” she said.