After sunset on December 21, Jupiter and Saturn appear closer together in the night sky than they have been since Middle Ages, appearing to be a double planet.
“Alignments between these two planets are quite rare, they occur once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare due to how close the planets will be to each other,” Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan said in a statement. . “You would have to go back to just before sunrise on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these visible objects in the night sky.”
Jupiter and Saturn have been closing in on Earth’s sky since summer. From December 16 to December 25, the two will be separated by less than the diameter of a full moon.
“On the night of closest approach, December 21, they will look like a double planet, separated by only one-fifth the diameter of the full moon,” said Hartigan, a professor of physics and astronomy. “For most telescopes, each planet and several of its largest moons will be visible in the same field of view that night.”
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Although the best observation conditions will be near the equator, the event can be observed anywhere on Earth, weather permitting.
Hartigan said the planetary duo will appear low in the western sky for about an hour after sunset each night.
Image: PATRICK HARTIGAN, GPL-2.0
“The further north a viewer is, the less time they will have to glimpse the conjunction before the planets sink below the horizon,” he said. Fortunately, the planets will be bright enough to be seen at twilight, which may be the best time for many American viewers to observe the conjunction.
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“By the time the skies are completely dark in Houston, for example, the conjunction will be only 9 degrees above the horizon,” Hartigan said. “Seeing that would be manageable if the weather cooperates and you have a clear view to the southwest.”
But an hour after sunset, people looking up at the sky in New York or London will find the planets even closer to the horizon, at about 7.5 degrees and 5.3 degrees respectively. Spectators there, and at similar latitudes, would do well to catch a glimpse of the rare astronomical sight as soon as possible after sunset, he said.
Those who would rather wait and see Jupiter and Saturn this close and higher in the night sky will need to stay until March 15, 2080, Hartigan said. After that, the couple will not make such an appearance until sometime after the year 2400.
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