Jupiter and Saturn

Conjunctions (the close approach of two objects) happen fairly frequently on a cosmic scale – Jupiter and Saturn pass one another about every 20 years, but today Jupiter and Saturn are the closest they have been in the sky since the year 1226, almost 800 years ago! This is one of those events that sounds a lot more spectacular than it looks. What you will see is one bright and one less bright star-like object in the sky that are less than the width of the full moon apart. The real show was in slow motion over the last couple of weeks as the two moved closer to one another. Here’s the view on the 13th and 18th (same focal length lens, slightly different times and camera position as you can see from the Spanish moss hanging down …). You can grab the slider (<>) and move it from side to side to see how much difference a week made …

Jupiter and Saturn, 13th and 18th of December

Through a small telescope you can see that these are not stars but planets … here is a view using a 400mm lens …

Saturn (top) and Jupiter. You can just make out the rings of Saturn and the cloud bands of Juipter in a small telescope. Although not visible in this shot you would also see several moons of each planet.

The real magic in this event is that you are seeing something that won’t be seen again in several lifetimes. People today are less attuned to the sky, especially given the lights in most cities block out the stars. Besides the sun, the only object most people see is the moon – and that often only when it’s full. But our ancestors watched the sky carefully, and noticed that some of the “stars” moved, and thought them to be special, perhaps messengers of the Gods or even the Gods Themselves. Those who watched the sky and interpreted the motions of the sun, moon, and stars noticed that in the years leading up to the year 750 AUC (Ab Urbe Condita, after the founding of The City – Rome) that there were a series of conjunctions between Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and Saturn in auspicious constellations that may well have indicated to them that a new King would be born in Israel. That is one theory as to what the Christmas Star might have been, but there are others. From a theological standpoint seeking a naturalistic explanation seems to miss the point a bit since it is one of those things that probably isn’t going to convince anyone one way or the other. Besides, the Nativity was almost certainly in the Spring anyway … In any event, if you are a Christian or not, this is a window to a past where the majority of humans lived outside and were much more connected to the sky and their environment. So take a few minutes right after sunset and try to imagine what it was like thousands of years ago with no city lights, watching these mysterious objects majestically dance through the heavens …

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