‘Great Conjunction’: Rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn wows sky gazers
The evening sky over the northern hemisphere treated space enthusiasts with an opportunity to watch a rare celestial event on Monday as the solar system’s two biggest planets - Jupiter and Saturn - appeared to meet in an alignment that astronomers call the “Great Conjunction.”
The best viewing conditions were in clear skies and close to the equator while people in Western Europe and along a vast swathe of Africa had to look to the southwest to observe the phenomenon. Hundreds of space fans also gathered in Kolkata to watch the “Great Conjunction” through a telescope at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum in the city, or from surrounding rooftops and open areas though the winter fog partially hindered the view.
The rare spectacle coincided with Monday’s winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. For those able to observe the alignment in clear skies, the two frozen-gas spheres appeared closer and more vibrant - almost as a single point of light - than at any time in 800 years. At the point of convergence, Jupiter and Saturn appeared to be just one-tenth of a degree apart but in reality, the planets remained more than 730 million kilometres apart, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). But because of their alignment in relation to the earth, they appeared to be closer to each other than at any time in almost 400 years.
A conjunction of the two planets takes place about once every 20 years. But the last time Jupiter and Saturn came as close together in the sky as on Monday was in 1623, an alignment that occurred during daylight and was thus not visible from most places on earth.
The next “Great Conjunction” between the two planets — though not nearly as close together — will come in November 2040. A closer alignment similar to Monday’s will be in March 2080 with the following close conjunction 337 years later in August 2417, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Reuters.