There’s a light at the end of the tunnel here in 2020. That light is not simply the figurative conclusion of a year consisting of an unending series of unfortunate events. A literal light awaits as 2020 draws to a close–the Great Conjunction of 2020.
For writers and literal types like I am, you may be confused. What’s so great about but, since, though, unless, and since? No, it’s not that type of conjunction. A conjunction is also a term used by astronomers; it describes what occurs when planets appear incredibly close to each other in the sky because they are lined up with Earth in their respective orbits. During a conjunction both planets can be seen in the same field of view in a telescope. Later this month Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system, will align for the viewing pleasure of us Earthlings.
Conjunctions themselves are not that rare. Why, there are numerous conjunctions appearing in this blog post alone; but I digress. Astronomical conjunctions happen every 20 years. In fact, Jupiter and Saturn last had a conjunction in May 2000. So why is their conjunction, which is slated to appear low in the southwestern sky on December 21st, deemed “Great”?
In the first place (always a good place to start), a meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky is referred to as a “great conjunction” because it happens less often than the conjunction of other planets. Their upcoming conjunction really is a HUGE deal. The last observable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn appeared in the night sky four centuries ago–just before dawn on March 4, 1226. That was a bit before my time, so I’ll have to take the astronomers’ word for the occurrence of that event. To put the timeframe for the last observable conjunction in perspective, Genghis Khan was alive and attempting to conquer the known world then. While a great conjunction also occurred in 1623, it was not visible on Earth; the alignment was too close to the sun thus obscuring its visibility.
This type of heavenly event will not be repeated any time soon either. NASA indicates the next great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will not occur until March 15, 2080–likely after my time. Thus, it is now or never for me and many others to see a conjunction between these two planets.
Now that we are all excited about this momentous astronomical event, exactly when can we see it? Mark your calendars for the last solstice of 2020 which will occur on December 21st. In case you’ve forgotten what you learned in science way back in elementary school, this approaching solstice is when winter officially begins. December 21st will be the longest night of 2020 in the northern hemisphere. So, the Great Conjunction of 2020 will brighten the darkest day of the year for us northern hemisphere dwellers.
But it is not just the date would be observers of the Great Conjunction of 2020 need to know. This planetary alignment can only be seen right after sunset. It will appear low on the horizon, so locations with buildings could block a view of the horizon. Plans must be made as to when and where you should be for successful viewing. Dinnertime may have to be pushed back to accommodate this gazing activity.
Assuming you are at a good location at the right time on the evening of December 21st, what will you see? Astronomers indicate the alignment will look like a double planet. While Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be physically close, just 0.1 degree apart viewed through a telescope, in reality they are nowhere near each other. The two gas giants are actually hundreds of millions of miles apart.
During the Great Conjunction of 2020, there will be a bright light in the sky because Jupiter shines brighter than any star above. However, Jupiter is not as bright as the moon. Experts indicate the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn might produce a Christmas star as the lights of these two planets merge and appear like a single point of reflected light to the naked eye.
Speaking of a Christmas star, legendary German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed that the Star of Bethlehem, a prominent element in the Christmas story, was really a planetary alignment. He pointed to a rare triple convergence of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. According to Kepler, then, it wasn’t the stars that aligned at the time of Jesus’ birth but the planets.
While I’m no scientist like Kepler, I do love to gaze up at the twinkling stars and bright planets and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. I’ll be outside on the evening of December 21st taking in some history–the Great Conjunction of 2020. How fitting that at the end of the most difficult year most of us have endured, God is giving those who will be viewing the alignment a reminder that there is a light for this dark world. The Star of Bethlehem led the wise men to find Jesus, and perhaps the Great Conjunction of 2020 will lead some modern men (and women) to do the same.
Do you enjoy stargazing? Have you ever heard of a conjunction–the astronomical kind, that is? Does it make any difference to the Christmas story whether the Star of Bethlehem was actually a star or planets aligning? Is the timing of the Great Conjunction of 2020, a year of such pain and struggle, coincidental?