While we wait for Santa’s flying sleigh to zoom through the sky later this week, there is a rare celestial conjunction happening—one that hasn’t happened in 400 years.
At sunset on December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be closer together in the night sky than ever before in our lifetime. The phenomenon is called a "great conjunction"—when astronomical objects appear to meet up with each other from Earth’s vantage point. Yes, they might actually be more than 400 million miles apart from each other, but the planetary pair will appear to be a tenth of a degree from each other to the naked eye.
All week leading up to this big celestial rendezvous, the two planets have been getting closer and closer together, and unlike the incredible Northern Lights spotting in New York, you don’t have to leave the NYC area to see the big showing tonight.
“Even if you are in light-polluted NYC, you can see this event because Jupiter and Saturn are two of the brightest objects in the Sky,” explains Dr. Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.
"The best advice I can give is to get out there right at sunset. Look toward the west and wait for the brightest object to come up. They will be setting fast (before 7pm EST for NYC) so don't wait!" At dusk, the planets are highest in the sky, Faherty adds.
NASA offers tips for star-gazers who would like to see this phenomenon for themselves:
- Find a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, such as a field or park. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen even from most cities.
- An hour after sunset, look to the southwestern sky. Jupiter will look like a bright star and be easily visible. Saturn will be slightly fainter and will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until December 21, when Jupiter will overtake it and they will reverse positions in the sky.
- The planets can be seen with the unaided eye, but if you have binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting the giant planet.
If you miss out tonight, you should be able to continue watching the conjunction for two weeks until the New Year, because the planets are passing each other from our vantage point in the sky, says Faherty.
"As we head into the new year Jupiter and Saturn will start to separate on the sky again but the view will continue to be gorgeous and it all gives you an idea of planetary motion."
If you'd rather stay in your pj's and watch from your screen, or if a dark storm cloud suddenly takes over your region's sky, you can also watch the great conjunction or "Christmas Star" streamed in real-time below.
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