The Moon in conjunction with Venus and Jupiter, with the Very Large Telescope in the foreground. Image © Y. Beletsky, ESO, 2009.

The Great Conjunction of 2020

Dominic Ford, Editor
From the Outer Planets feed

The Moon in conjunction with Venus and Jupiter, with the Very Large Telescope in the foreground. Image © Y. Beletsky, ESO, 2009.

The planets Jupiter and Saturn have been a prominent sight in the evening sky in recent months, nestling close together in Sagittarius.

But as their 2020 apparition draws to a close, the two planets will draw even closer together, reaching closest approach on 21 December. On that day, the two planets will lie a mere 6.1 arcminutes of each other, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the two planets within the same telescopic field of view. In fact, this will be the closest approach of the two planets since the year 1623.

Close approaches of the two planets are called great conjunctions because they are the rarest of all conjunctions between the planets that are visible to the naked eye. The last time such a conjunction was observable was in 1980. The most recent great conjunction, in 2000, was not observable since it took place while the two planets were a mere 3° away from the Sun.

The rarity of great conjunctions is due to the slow motion of Jupiter and Saturn across the sky. Among the planets that are visible to the naked eye, they are the two most distant from the Sun, taking 11.86 years and 29.5 years respectively to orbit it. As the two planets gradually move through the constellations at different speeds, they follow almost the same path across the sky, called the ecliptic. Periodically, Jupiter catches up with Saturn and overtakes it, resulting in a great conjunction, on average once every 19.6 years.

Not all of these great conjunctions are equally dramatic. Sometimes they happen when the planets are too close to the Sun to be observable, as happened in 2000. And at other times they may not pass any closer than five degrees (the width of ten full moons) apart. The 2020 great conjunction will be the closest approach of the two planets since 1623, and they will not come so close again until their 2080 great conjunction.

The two planets will lie deep in the southern sky at the time of this year's conjunction, at a declination of 20°S, and so the best views will be had from the southern hemisphere. But they will nonetheless still be accessible to any northern observers who are willing to travel to find a clear southern-western horizon. Since the pair will be several months past opposition, they will only be visible in the early evening sky and will be well on their way to setting at sunset. The best time to see the pair will be soon after sunset on the night of 21 December.

For localised information about how to observe the conjunction from your location, click here.

The sky on 21 October 2020
Sunrise
07:37
Sunset
18:10
Twilight ends
19:53
Twilight begins
05:54

5-day old moon
Waxing Crescent

26%

5 days old

Planets
Rise Culm. Set
Mercury 08:33 13:24 18:14
Venus 04:18 10:40 17:03
Moon 13:48 17:51 21:54
Mars 17:51 00:22 06:47
Jupiter 14:14 18:31 22:47
Saturn 14:34 18:56 23:19
All times shown in PDT.

Source

The circumstances of this event were computed using the DE430 planetary ephemeris published by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

This event was automatically generated by searching the ephemeris for planetary alignments which are of interest to amateur astronomers, and the text above was generated based on an estimate of your location.

Image credit

The Moon in conjunction with Venus and Jupiter, with the Very Large Telescope in the foreground. Image © Y. Beletsky, ESO, 2009.

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