Don't forget to look out for the 'Christmas Star of Bethlehem' on Monday

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The moon shines like the Star of Bethlehem over a church steeple.
The moon shines like the Star of Bethlehem over a church steeple.
Getty Images

Start beseeching the weather gods to provide clear skies on Monday night.

The celestial event that’s been dubbed the “star of Bethlehem” is set for December 21.

The Witness previously wrote that Dr Daniel Cunnama, science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory, confirmed that the spectacular conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be visible in South African night skies.

“You can look to the west just after sunset and you will see them ...,” said Cunnama.

Nasa has been keeping the public updated on what they've dubbed the 'Christmas star' phenomenon.

“What makes this year’s spectacle so rare, then? It’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this 'great conjunction'.”
Nasa

They provided a history of how in 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to the night sky, discovering the four moons of Jupiter – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Nasa said that later that year, Galileo also discovered a strange oval surrounding Saturn, which later observations determined to be its rings.

"These discoveries changed how people understood the far reaches of our solar system.

"Thirteen years later, in 1623, the solar system’s two giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, traveled together across the sky. Jupiter caught up to and passed Saturn, in an astronomical event known as a 'Great Conjunction'."  

“You can imagine the solar system to be a racetrack, with each of the planets as a runner in their own lane and the Earth toward the center of the stadium,” said Henry Throop, astronomer in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “From our vantage point, we’ll be able to be to see Jupiter on the inside lane, approaching Saturn all month and finally overtaking it on December 21.”

“On the 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.”
Nasa

Nasa said the planets regularly appear to pass each other in the solar system, with the positions of Jupiter and Saturn being aligned in the sky about once every 20 years.

"What makes this year’s spectacle so rare, then? It’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this 'great conjunction'.” If the weather is clear, that is.

Nasa said the closest alignment will appear just a tenth of a degree apart and last for a few days.

"On the 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.

"From our vantage point on Earth the huge gas giants will appear very close together, but they will remain hundreds of millions of miles apart in space."

And, what makes this even more interesting to many, is that by coincidence it takes place on the same day as the southern hemisphere's summer solstice and the northern hemisphere's winter solstice.

“Conjunctions like this could happen on any day of the year, depending on where the planets are in their orbits,” said Throop. “The date of the conjunction is determined by the positions of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Earth in their paths around the Sun, while the date of the solstice is determined by the tilt of Earth’s axis.

The Google Doodle for Monday celebrates the celestial kiss. 

The Google Doodle celebrates the celestial kiss
The Google Doodle celebrates the celestial kiss

For those who would like to see this phenomenon for themselves, Nasa provides these tips:

  • Find a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, such as a field or park. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen even from most cities.
  • An hour after sunset, look to the southwestern sky. Jupiter will look like a bright star and be easily visible. Saturn will be slightly fainter and will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until December 21, when Jupiter will overtake it and they will reverse positions in the sky.
  • The planets can be seen with the unaided eye, but if you have binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting the giant planet.

The next great conjunction will happen on March 15, 2080.

If you are able to see the 'Great Conjunction' on Monday, let us know where you saw it in the comments below. 

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