Photo credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls
Stargazers will be in for a special treat, as they’ll be able to see the once-in-a-lifetime “Christmas Star” planetary conjunction in the evening sky over the next two weeks as the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn come together, culminating on the night of Dec. 21. What makes this year’s phenomenon so rare is that it’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and around 800 years since the alignment of these two gas giants occurred at night. Read more for a video on viewing tips and additional information.
On December 21st, they will appear to be so close that a small finger at arm’s length easily covers both planets in the sky. You’ll be able to see them with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset. From our viewpoint on Earth, the planets will appear very close together, but they’re actually hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. The conjunction is actually happening on the same day as the winter solstice, making the timing is merely a coincidence.
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Conjunctions like this could happen on any day of the year, depending on where the planets are in their orbits. The date of the conjunction is determined by the positions of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Earth in their paths around the Sun, while the date of the solstice is determined by the tilt of Earth’s axis. The solstice is the longest night of the year, so this rare coincidence will give people a great chance to go outside and see the solar system,” said Henry Throop, astronomer in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.