A Remarkable Sight in the Night Sky

Dec 18, 2020
On December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be almost merged from our vantage point on Earth. This is the first time in 800 years that they've been so close together and been observable.

By Jana Hemphill

There is just something magical about the night sky. Staring up at the moon, stars, and faraway planets reminds me of the magnitude of our solar system, while making me feel very, very tiny. Every time I take the time to step outside and look up at the night sky, I am in awe of the world and system beyond us.

On December 21st and the days leading up and following, the night sky will offer an added awe-inspiring treat. The Great Conjunction of 2020 is when the two largest planets in the solar system--Jupiter and Saturn--will appear to be almost merged from our vantage point on Earth. In fact, they'll be so close to one another that you’ll be able to see Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescopic view.

Conjunctions, which are when two celestial objects appear to pass close to one another as seen from Earth, are fairly common. It is much more rare when Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass close to one another. In fact, this is the first time in 800 years that they’ve been so close together and been observable. More recently, in May 2000, the two planets had a conjunction, but were so near the sun, it was difficult to observe.

Jupiter takes around 12 Earth years to orbit the sun, while Saturn takes about 30 Earth years. As seen from Earth, Jupiter appears to “catch up” to Saturn every 20 years. When this conjunction occurs, the planets can be up to 13 degrees apart. This year’s event will have them appearing to be 0.1 degree apart.

A few interesting facts about these two planets
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and has 79 confirmed moons. New research shows that Jupiter could possibly have up to 600 moons! It doesn’t have a solid surface and is mostly made of hydrogen and helium. With a 100 power telescope, you may be able to see the atmospheric bands of Jupiter.

Saturn is well-known for its rings. These seven main rings are made of chunks of ice and rock. Like Jupiter, is it mostly made of hydrogen and helium. Saturn has 53 confirmed moons and 29 unconfirmed moons. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, looks like a nearby star from Earth.

 

How to view the Grand Conjunction of 2020

This is an incredible sight that is not to be missed! Here are some helpful hints for making the most out of this opportunity.

1. Check the weather.
One of the most important parts of looking up at the night sky is having the sky visible! Take a look at the weather to determine the best night around December 21st that has a clear sky--clouds are not your friends for this event. If the sky is clear or only slightly cloudy with thin clouds, you should be able to see both planets. You'll want to be outside between dusk and 7pm, when the planets set.

2. Choose your planet-gazing location. In Central Oregon, some great spots to go are the Oregon Badlands Wilderness and East Fort Rock OHV areas east of Bend. If you want to stay a little closer to home, keep in mind that you’ll want to get away from as many lights as you can. You'll also benefit from making sure no trees or other objects are directly in your view.

3. Methods of viewing. You will be able to see the Great Conjunction of 2020 with the naked eye, if that’s all you have, but binoculars will help your viewing, no matter what kind you have. Binoculars with 15 power will let you see several moons of Jupiter and possibly even the rings of Saturn. Going beyond that, 20 power spotting scopes, 50-100 power scopes, and small telescopes will all give you a great view of this phenomenon. If the idea of hanging out in the cold isn’t your favorite, you have the option to watch the Great Conjunction of 2020 through Lowell Observatory’s livestream YouTube event, starting at 4pm PST on December 21st.

4. How to find the Great Conjunction of 2020. In general, look to the southwest soon after the sun sets. The two planets will be about 12 degrees above the horizon an hour after sunset (around 5:30pm). Jupiter will be very bright in the sky, while Saturn will be slightly less bright with a yellow hue. If you want some help, there are a variety of apps that can assist you in finding the two planets--SkyView Lite, Star Walk 2, Stellarium, or Star Chart are all great options.

With a bit of weather luck, you’ll be able to see with your own eyes a remarkable sight with planets that won’t appear this close together for another 80 years. Happy Jupiter and Saturn spotting!

If you capture a photo of this incredible event, make sure to tag @DesLandTrust on your social media posts about it! We’d love to share it as well!

 

Learn more:


Sources:

  • The Land Trust's volunteer tour leader Jim Hammond. Thank you, Jim!
  • Astronomy.com
  • NASA
  • Earth Sky