News and Commentary

Christmas Star: How To See ‘Double Planet,’ First In 800 Years

Head out during twilight and look southwest low on the horizon
JERSEY CITY, NJ - DECEMBER 18: Saturn and Jupiter set behind a church ahead of their conjunction that is being called The Christmas Star next week on December 18, 2020 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system, will soon line up and look like a double planet, a sight not seen since the Middle Ages.

The rare celestial event will occur after sunset on Monday, the start of the winter solstice, but will also be visibly close through Christmas night.

“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 one another,” Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan said in a statement. “You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.”

While people close to the equator will have the best view, the double planet will be visible from nearly everywhere. The pair, though, will be low on the horizon in the continental United States. To see them, find a dark place about an hour after sunset and look toward the southwestern sky. Of course, you’ll need a cloudless night to see the planets.

Although Saturn and Jupiter will be closest on Monday night, they’ll appear very close together until Dec. 26.

The alignment has been coming for a long time. Jupiter orbits the sun every 12 years, while Saturn’s orbit takes 30 years, and every couple of decades, Jupiter laps Saturn, according to NASA.

“On the evening of closest approach on Dec 21 they will look like a double planet, separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full moon,” said Hartigan, a professor of physics and astronomy. “For most telescope viewers, each planet and several of their largest moons will be visible in the same field of view that evening.”

“The further north a viewer is, the less time they’ll have to catch a glimpse of the conjunction before the planets sink below the horizon,” he said, although he added that the planets will be bright enough to be seen in twilight, which may be the best time for many U.S. viewers to observe the alignment.

“By the time skies are fully dark in Houston, for example, the conjunction will be just 9 degrees above the horizon,” Hartigan said. “Viewing that would be manageable if the weather cooperates and you have an unobstructed view to the southwest.”

“But an hour after sunset, people looking skyward in New York or London will find the planets even closer to the horizon, about 7.5 degrees and 5.3 degrees respectively. Viewers there, and in similar latitudes, would do well to catch a glimpse of the rare astronomical sight as soon after sunset as possible,” Hartigan said in his statement.

He also said “those who prefer to wait and see Jupiter and Saturn this close together and higher in the night sky will need to stick around until March 15, 2080. After that, the pair won’t make such an appearance until sometime after the year 2400.”

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