After a difficult year, the advent of the Christmas Star was something wondrous to look forward to. The internet buzzed with how Saturn and Jupiter would align almost perfectly in their orbits, so much so as to appear as one unusually bright star. This rare occurrence, coinciding with the winter solstice and technically known as “the Great Conjunction,” happens only once every four-hundred years. The last time the Great Conjunction occurred in the night sky, however, was in 1226. Earthlings primed to look up into the late December sky in 2020 stood to witness a cosmic and extraordinary rapprochement. Bob and I (total amateurs when it comes to such things) talked over our astronomical excursion excitedly.
Seeing an astronomical wonder depends on information, good timing, and good luck. Whereas some articles asserted that the planets would be visible for just forty-five minutes after sunset, from our present quarters in southwest Michigan, the two planets were above the horizon for almost two hours (per this sophisticated “time lapse” sky map for nearby Benton Harbor). The two planets had begun drawing closer to one another for many weeks prior to December 21 and will continue to appear close together in the night sky until early January. The evening of the 21st was overcast in our area, but on the 20th and 22nd the conjoined planets (above) were easy to spot.
On the 20th, as the sky grew dark, the two planets grew more distinct. Jupiter sported a sweet pink halo; that was Saturn. We found that our best view of the sky was from under some huge evergreen trees near a very powerful streetlight. Gradually, we lost a clear view of the planets, as they descended at a roughly 45-degree angle toward the horizon.
I took this photograph on the 22nd, using a Nikon with a 36x zoom. This is a more clinical, scientific view. The planets only appear to be “next” to one another, when they are hundreds of millions of miles away from one other and from us. Saturn (at right) is roughly twice as far away from Earth as Jupiter is.
This picture from the 22nd, taken with my Sony on a tripod, better captures the thrill of seeing the two planets in the cold twilight sky. Saturn is now clearly to the right of brilliant Jupiter. Saturn looks like a pearl with an ermine ring. Fiddling with this picture in Photoshop doesn’t improve anything. The astonishing clarity of the planets filled me with awe.
This was perhaps the best picture I took, because, to the left of the planets, one can just make out several of Jupiter’s moons. The 22nd was partly cloudy, and we were lucky that the wispy clouds broke enough up to reveal this dazzling sight. For a happy hour, we gazed up with our binoculars, our cameras, and our unaided eyes, until the planets disappeared into the trees.
All photos © Susan Barsy 2020