The two largest planets in the solar system enter into planetary kissing distance, a level of intimacy that will not be repeated until 2080.
With the northern hemisphere’s evening skies treated stargazers to a unique illusion Monday, the largest two planets in the solar system seemed to come closer in a celestial alignment which astronomers name ” the Great Conjunction“ – a type of planetary intimacy that won’t recur until 2080.
The unusual sight resulted from a close convergence of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn that coincided with the Northern Hemisphere‘s winter solstice, which is the very shortest day of the year.
To those who were able to observe the conjunction under clear skies, the two orbs of frozen gas appeared closer and more luminous – almost like a single point of light – than at any time in 800 years, although in reality they were more than 730 million kilometers apart.
The optimal conjunction occurred at 18:22 GMT.
Monday’s best observing conditions were under clear skies and near the equator.
Astronomers recommended the best way to observe the conjunction was to look southwest in an open area about an hour after sunset.
“Large telescopes don’t help that much, modest binoculars are perfect, and even the eyeball is OK to see that they are right together,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote in an email to Reuters.
Hundreds of space enthusiasts also gathered in the Indian city of Kolkata to observe through a telescope at one of the city’s technology museums or from surrounding rooftops and open spaces.
And in Kuwait, astrophotographers traveled to the desert west of Kuwait City to capture the once-in-a-lifetime event.
Viewed through a telescope or even good binoculars, Jupiter and Saturn were no more than one-fifth the diameter of a full moon apart.
But to the naked eye, they would merge into a “very luminous” double planet, said Florent Deleflie of the Paris Observatory.
“The Great Conjunction refers to the period when two planets have relatively similar positions with respect to Earth,” Deleflie said.
“With a small instrument – even a small pair of binoculars – you can see the equatorial bands of Jupiter and its main satellites, as well as the rings of Saturn.”
The last time Jupiter and Saturn came this close was in 1623, but weather conditions in regions where the event could be seen blocked the view.
Visibility was apparently better once before telescopes were invented, in 1226, in the midst of the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Jupiter, which is the larger planet, takes 12 years to orbit the sun, while Saturn takes 29 years.
About every 20 years, they appear to approach each other for observers on Earth.
The next major conjunction between the two planets – though not nearly as close – is due in November 2040. A similar conjunction to Monday’s won’t happen until March 2080, McDowell said.