One of the gifts of 2020 is a star so bright it lights up the night sky. Known as the “Christmas Star,” a planetary conjunction will culminate on December 21 and be especially vibrant and easily visible after dusk, particularly from Southern locations.
Approximately every 20 years, Jupiter and Saturn become aligned and appear to pass each other in the solar system in what is called a great conjunction. A conjunction is an apparent passing of two or more celestial bodies while a great conjunction refers only to Jupiter and Saturn. What makes this astronomical event so important is that it is the closest great conjunction since July 16, 1623 but that one took place during the daytime making it nearly impossible to witness at that time. This one is also the first conjunction (not great conjunction) to be easily observable since March 4, 1226.
Henry Throop, an astronomer in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, explains the phenomena. “You can imagine the solar system to be a racetrack with each of the planets as a runner in their own lane and the Earth toward the center of the stadium. From our vantage point, we’ll be able to be to see Jupiter on the inside lane, approaching Saturn all month, and finally overtaking it on December 21.”
We can spot this “star” by looking toward the southwest just after sunset. Jupiter will appear to be the brighter planet. We can find Saturn slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until December 21. The planets will appear very close together, but they really are hundreds of millions of miles apart.
With binoculars or a small telescope, we may also be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting around it. However, visibility will be minimized the farther north we are located. For example, those in our southern states will have a better viewpoint than those in the northern ones. Cloud coverage, city lights, and geographical obstructions will also impact visibility.
Astronomers such as Johannes Kepler, believe the Christmas Star that announced the birth of the Messiah, also was a conjunction. In 1603 Kepler stated that the Christmas Star actually was a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun that appeared to go backwards for several weeks. Other astronomers believe that the conjunction was between Venus and Jupiter, not Saturn and Jupiter.
The Christmas Star is a sign of hope and promise. Let’s pray this great conjunction brings us a hefty dose of both. PS
If the star wasn’t visible in your location, check out some of these photos. I believe you can make your wish on these virtual images because we are in a virtual kind of year.
Check NASA’s website and follow them on Facebook from more astrological information.
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