In a year with a pandemic, economic uncertainty, a contentious election, civil unrest, discord and various other difficulties — we’re sure we forgot some — it is nice to have a reminder that the cosmos can be orderly and predictable. So, it seems, the Great Conjunction is arriving at the ideal time, serving as a gentle reminder that the universe is bigger than ourselves.
Jupiter and Saturn, the largest planets in our solar system, will spend the next few nights drawing closer together before appearing to be in alignment Monday evening.
At least, that is how it looks from our perspective. In reality, the planets will remain some 450 million miles apart, but the visual convergence will provide a rare phenomenon.
According to experts quoted in an article by Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt, the last time a Great Conjunction was so visible was in 1226. We’re not sure if there was a pandemic that year, but we’re guessing that life was pretty difficult.
An earlier Great Conjunction might or might not have created the Star of Bethlehem that legend says guided the Three Wise Men to the location of Jesus’ birth. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, conjunctions occurred “within 10 years of the chronological point now taken as the beginning of the Christian era.”
Jupiter and Saturn pass each other about once every 20 years, with Jupiter making an orbit around the sun once every 12 Earth years and Saturn taking roughly 29.5. But rarely do they pass at such a visible angle to the earth.
Explains the NASA website: “The closest alignment will appear just a tenth of a degree apart and last for a few days. On the 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.”
Astronomers recommend finding a clear patch of ground to witness the event, lest the landscape be obscured by trees or houses. The best viewing will be low in the southwestern sky about 45 minutes after sunset (Monday’s sunset is at 4:29 p.m.), and the planets will set around 7 p.m.
Astronomy long has been a source of fascination, sparking our imaginations and making us ponder what lies beyond our own planet. What began in ancient times as simple observations and predictions of how distant celestial bodies will move has evolved into human exploration. It also has evolved into certainty about how the cosmos act and that the next Great Conjunction will be in 2080.
In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei used a telescope to discover the four moons of Jupiter; later that year, he discovered a strange oval surrounding Saturn — the planet’s rings. According to NASA, “These discoveries changed how people understood the far reaches of our solar system.” That understanding has continued to grow.
Whether or not you make an effort to view the Great Conjunction, the event arrives with fortuitous timing. Coming near the end of a year that many of us would rather forget, and during the Christmas season, it is tempting to seize upon the passing of the planets as a harbinger of a brighter future.
There is order to be found in an astronomical phenomenon that is entirely predictable — despite being hundreds of millions of miles away. And there is comfort to be found in the thought that such events have been occurring since before humans were here to witness them.
In a year such as this, some order and comfort is worth a look.