For the first time in almost 800 years, the planets of Jupiter and Saturn will be so closely aligned on 21 December (Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere) that they’ll create what looks like that radiant star you sometimes see twinkling on Christmas cards… the Star of Bethlehem, which followers of the Christian faith believe the three Wise Men followed to find the newborn baby Jesus. It’s almost a Cosmic Christmas miracle! And it couldn’t be coming at a better time, when our world – exhausted by 2020’s pandemic – needs a little light to add a dose of hope to our hearts for better things to come.
Experts are a little divided over whether the Three Wise Men saw The Great Conjunction (as it’s called, since it’s a conjunction of planets and not really a star) or if they saw a comet or something else. But whatever the truth, it’s beautiful and it’ll be coming to a night sky near you just days before Christmas. The whole world will see this ‘Christmas Star’, including South Africa. Just look to the west, just after sunset.
The Star of Bethlehem and other names
The shining Great Conjunction is also called the Christmas Star (for obvious reasons) or the Solstice Star (again, for obvious reasons) or the Star of Bethlehem. And while it’s set to dazzle on 21 December… you can still witness the planets – Saturn and Jupiter – slowly drawing closer to each other every evening from now until the special event, if you venture out after the sun sets… (They’re the bright lights that that shine constantly and don’t flicker like stars.)
This conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is exceptionally rare – the Great Conjunction
According to Patrick Hartigan, a Rice University astronomer: “Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to be to one another.” He says the last time they were closer than this was just before dawn on March 4, 1226! That’s the Middle Ages!
Astronomy and Physics Blog says: “The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn are moving towards their conjunction on December 21st, when they’ll appear less than a tenth of a degree apart – just a fifth of a full-moon diameter. It’ll be the first Jupiter-Saturn conjunction since the year 2000 (when it happened too close to the Sun for us to see)…”
The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction was also close in 1623, but according to EarthSky it wasn’t visible to the naked eye.
If you have a telescope you can get a better view of this rare sight… and perhaps even witness this December’s Geminids meteor shower which Forbes says promises to be the best of all time (because it coincides with a new moon so the sky will be darker).