Monday is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. But this solstice brings with it a brilliant display of light, as Jupiter and Saturn draw close together in an event known as “the great conjunction.” They’ll appear closer in the sky than they’ve been in almost four centuries, low in the southwest after sunset. They may even look like a single dazzling star. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Lowell Observatory’s Kevin Schindler about how to see the once-in-a-lifetime event.
So Jupiter and Saturn have been drawing closer the last few days. Tell me what they’ll look like on the night of December 21.
This is an event that happens every twenty years or so when Jupiter and Saturn get close in the sky. This one is really pretty neat because they’re going to get really close… With our naked eye, it’s going to look like they’re the same thing… I think it’s a useful thing on clear nights between now and the 21st to go outside, and look at them in the southwest, Jupiter’s the bright one, Saturn a little bit fainter, and see how they’re getting closer every night. You can see why the ancients called these bodies “planets,” which means the Wanderers, because they wander across the night sky, and looking at this conjunction over several nights you can see why they called them that.
When was the last time Saturn and Jupiter appeared to be this close together in the sky?
The last time was when Galileo himself was looking at the skies, in 1623. So nearly 1400 years. That great conjunction, the planets were real close to the sun in terms of our line of sight, so not many people were able to see it. Before that it was the 1200s… so not since Genghis Khan was emperor have Jupiter and Saturn appeared so close in the sky.
What do we need to know if we want to go out and take a look at this event?
I think it’s most meaningful to go out as many nights as possible beforehand just to notice how much closer they’re getting…and you can use a pencil or your finger at arm’s length to tell how much closer they’re getting… The closest approach is actually in the daytime, but when it gets dark, they’ll still be pretty darn close… And then, Lowell Observatory will be doing a special program, this is all virtual, but you can get on the Lowell Observatory YouTube site, and we’ll do a live feed from telescopes up here. We’ll have some astronomers and educators explaining what’s happening, and we’ll also look at them through telescopes and be able to project that over the Internet. So you can go outside on your own, and see them with the naked eye, and then look at Lowell’s feed and see how they look through the telescopes. The 21st is also the winter solstice, so a double whammy of things to celebrate that night.
Why do you personally think it’s important that we go outside and take a look at the night sky for events like this?
I think, not just because we’ve had a challenging year… but especially this year, it feels like we need to connect with the universe around us. We’re so tied in—stuck at home, looking at the news every day, trying to understand what tomorrow brings. To be able to go outside and breathe the air and look up at the sky, to me it’s rejuvenating. And to be able to do something like this, that’s just like the ancients did, before we had television and internet and craziness right now, we can do the same thing that those folks did hundreds of years ago by just going outside and being part of the universe. Not just being kind of on the outside, but really being in the middle of it.
Kevin Schindler, thank you for speaking with me.
Great to talk with you.
Lowell Observatory’s livestream of the event will begin Monday at 5pm. More info: https://lowell.edu/the-great-conjunction/