Perhaps the alleged celestial phenomenon was also an unusual planetary constellation – one that can be observed again in the Christmas sky these days.
The actors of the upcoming celestial spectacle are Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system. For weeks the two bright wandering stars have been moving towards each other in the sky when viewed from Earth.
On Monday they will come so close in the evening south-west sky that they “almost merge into a common point of light”, announced the Association of Star Friends (VdS) and the Heidelberg House of Astronomy.
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Comfortable observation conditions
Astronomers call such encounters between celestial bodies a conjunction. Whether the meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in our sky has something to do with the mysterious star of Bethlehem, as some suspect, has by no means been proven and ultimately is of no importance from an astronomical point of view. It is clear, however, that the two gas giants Jupiter and Saturn will come particularly close this time.
“The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020, which coincidentally falls on the day of the winter solstice, is the best that the universe has to offer us for a long time,” reported the VdS and the House of Astronomy. In any case, a conjunction of the two giant planets is rare: It only takes place every 20 years and is called a great conjunction. A celestial spectacle like on Monday will not be seen again for almost 60 years.
Jupiter and Saturn approached each other for the last time on May 31, 2000. At that time, however, they were reportedly too close to the sun to be visible in the night sky. On July 24, 1981, the conditions were more favorable: Jupiter and Saturn appeared in the late evening sky, but were more than two full moon diameters apart.
This time, however, the two planets will approach each other by up to a fifth of the full moon diameter under comfortable observation conditions. The distance between the two planetary discs in our sky will be only six arc minutes on Monday. This means that when viewed with the naked eye, they almost only form a point of light.
Gas giants on what appears to be a collision course
A similarly close grand conjunction will not take place again until March 15, 2080, but then in the already bright dawn and thus under poor observation conditions.
By the way, it is by no means the case that Jupiter and Saturn are actually approaching each other in space. Although their distance varies somewhat on their orbits around the sun, on average they are 660 million kilometers apart, on Monday evening it will be around 730 million kilometers. The two gas giants only come close from Earth.
Whoever wants to be an eyewitness to this rare spectacle needs above all a cloud-free sky. A telescope, however, is not necessary. After all, Jupiter shines brighter than the brightest stars, and Saturn is only a little fainter. “Both can be recognized at first glance,” reported the astronomers in advance. The brighter Jupiter is on the left below the weaker ringed planet Saturn.
Of course, it is always worth taking a look at the two giant planets through binoculars or telescopes. At Jupiter, for example, some of its four large moons can already be seen in binoculars. To be able to see the spectacular ring around Saturn, a telescope or spotting scope with at least 30x magnification is required. (AFP)