How To View the Great Conjunction
Updated: Jan 4
You've probably seen some breathless news story about a "Christmas Star" in the west, a Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Mars that maybe your children will see again in 2080. https://www.space.com/great-conjunction-jupiter-saturn-christmas-star-2020-nasa-tips
The good news is, you can definitely see Jupiter if you can get a clear view of the lower fifth or so of the southwestern sky--it's bright enough to be visible even in the middle of city lights. I've been watching Saturn catch up to it over the summer, and was surprised how quickly they went from several-Moon-diameters apart to so close it took me a while to distinguish Saturn about two Jupiter-diameters to the upper right. They're definitely setting earlier than this summer and fall, as they're now behind the buildings west of my apartment building at sunset instead of shining above them. Just find a place where you don't have hills, large buildings, or trees covering much of the sky above the horizon. (Even a parking garage could be a good place to get above the rooftops in the warmth of your car.)
But I'm concerned by all the "Christmas Star" hype. Yes, it's nifty to see an astronomical event even in the same half of the sky as the Moon, surrounded by city lights in Silicon Valley. But the two planets together won't "blaze forth" noticeably brighter than Jupiter has been all year, not even as much as the difference we saw with "supermoons" and the closest approach of Mars this summer. It's certainly possible that ancient astrologers would have found it very significant for Jupiter and Saturn to approach one another in the sky (even though they weren't as close together as in 2020). Shepherds watching the star-filled skies may have noticed too, but I don't know what they would've thought of it. But this astronomical rarity makes a poetic end to the cursed year 2020, though I don't follow astrology enough to know how they interpret this.
But it's a good excuse to look up at the sky on the longest night of the year. If you have a telescope and you've already seen the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, then get it out for Monday, December 21, 2020! The Great Conjunction is supposed to be quite a sight with some optical assistance--Jupiter and its moons in the same field of view as Saturn with its rings. If you're prepared, definitely go celebrate the Solstice someplace dark enough to see the moons and rings.
But don't organize a big sky party with folks outside your household, please, unless you live some place like New Zealand that doesn't have to worry about COVID-19 any more. The Bay Area is not one of those places. Most of the US is also seeing the darkest hours of the pandemic at the darkest time of the year. The urge to gather together with our family and friends is ancient, but we need to resist this urge just for a few more months.
The Great Conjunction could be a great opportunity to celebrate together with those far away, sharing telescope images over Zoom or Facetime, or even just talking. "Can you see it?" "Yes! I can!" because the planets shine on all of us here on Planet Earth.
If Jupiter and Saturn are too close to see as separate dots with the naked eye on December 21, check again in the following days. They were impressively close on December 20, and they'll slowly drift apart as they proceed around the Sun on their separate paths that lined up for a night. I wish I'd been watching them approach, taking time out at nightfall to find a spot with a clear view. A week ago, I took time on my way home from the makerspace to find a pullout on a road in the Santa Cruz Mountains, without trees overhead, to watch a meteor shower. Just seeing a few nice fireballs crossing the sky helped restore my sense of awe and wonder, even though it was too cold to stay long and I was getting tired.
One of the things I miss about Humboldt County is the night sky. It's the only place I've lived where I could see the Milky Way, and I can't even see the Big Dipper where I live now.