South Africans can prepare to witness a celestial event
that’s been dubbed the "Star of Bethlehem", which will light up our night skies in the coming weeks.
Science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory, Dr Daniel Cunnama, has confirmed that a spectacular conjunction of the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn will be visible on December 21.
"You can look to the west just after sunset and you will see them over the next two weeks."
This will be the closest planetary "kiss" since 1623, where SA will see gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn just 0,06° apart. "Our Solar System’s two gas giant planets have been edging closer in recent months, and on Monday, December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be less than a degree apart in the night sky," BBC magazine wrote.
The sighting will also be visible to everyone across the world. "In fact, on that date – which also just happens to be the date of the December solstice – Saturn will be about twice as far from Earth as Jupiter will be. However, our line of sight from Earth will suggest otherwise, as we all get to witness (clear skies allowing) the closest planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that most of us are ever going to see. Saturn and Jupiter appear to pass close to each other, as seen from Earth, every 20 years, and when they do we call it a 'great conjunction'."
The last time the two planets were this close to each other was on July 16, 1623, and occurred just 13° east of the Sun, which means it was not really visible with the naked eye. The last time a great conjunction occurred that was indeed visible was on March 4, 1226.
Scientists stated that in order to have a good view of the event, one must be at a place with a good westward view without trees or buildings blocking the horizon. "Through binoculars, the observer will easily see Jupiter and Saturn separately in the same field of view. Ditto a small telescope, which will only need a low-power eyepiece (around 50x) to separate the two planets in the same field of view."
Not only will one be able to witness the "kiss" event, but it will also be possible to see Saturn’s rings, its giant moon Titan, and Jupiter’s Galilean moons Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa all in the same field of view.
For all photographers it is advised to use a 200 mm lens to capture a photograph of the planets and possibly Jupiter’s moons in the gathering darkness.
The next great conjunction is reported to only appeared again on March 15, in the year 2080.