Star of Bethlehem will return for Christmas 2020
Christmas Star will be closest visible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 800 years. The conjunction of the planetary giants will look like one large star on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2020, in the southwest sky.
By Tim Fitzsimons / NBC News
The Great Conjunction of 2020 will brighten the darkest day of the year as the two giant planets of our solar system draw closer together in the night sky than they have been in centuries.
By chance, the day that Jupiter and Saturn will appear closest for Earth-based stargazers is Dec. 21, the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere.
The last time the two planets were so close was 1623, but stargazing conditions at the time meant the astronomical event likely was not seen by earthlings. The last time such a close pairing was observable to the naked eye was in 1226, according to EarthSky.
"Keep in mind that while the two gas giants may appear close, in reality they are hundreds of millions of miles apart," NASA writes."This will still be quite a striking sight, but you will need to look fast as both planets will set shortly after sunset."
On the solstice night, Dec. 21, the moon will be higher in the sky, but Jupiter and Saturn will remain closer to the horizon in the western sky and might look like one large star. From an amateur telescope, however, a stargazer might be able to clearly see both planets and some of their moons within one frame of view.
"I have been watching them daily," Pat Hartigan, an astrophysicist at Rice University, wrote in an email.
Hartigan's "main takeaway," as published on his research site, is that the actual conjunction on the winter solstice is "a rare event definitely worth seeing, but it will be a challenge to observe from some locations."
The challenge is that the farther north a viewer is, the harder it is to see the planets on the winter solstice. On December 21, from New York City for instance, Jupiter and Saturn will be extremely close to the horizon, possibly obstructed by geography or blotted out by a bright sunset.
But there is still much to see in the days weeks leading to the conjunction, Hartigan writes.
"Near December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will appear like a binary planet in the dusk sky," he said. "However, they will not suddenly look like a brilliant 'Christmas Star.'"
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