In the complex dance of the cosmos, two celestial bodies are about to partner up. Here is how Jupiter and Saturn will come close to form the first ‘double planet’.
Jupiter and Saturn always appear far apart – two different specks puncturing different parts of the night sky. But the two largest planets in the solar system will come so close to each other later this month that according to NASA, they may appear to be overlapping, creating a kind of double planet’ that has not been visible since the Middle Ages.
The once-in-a-lifetime sight is the product of an astronomical event known as a “conjunction” in which two objects line up in the sky with each other. When it involves Jupiter and Saturn catching up to each other it’s sometimes called a “great conjunction.”
“You can actually see it with your own eye. It doesn’t have to be measured with sophisticated instruments,” Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University in Australia, told The Washington Post. “The two objects are appearing very close in the sky, but ultimately they’re very far away from each other.”
While Jupiter and Saturn will be separated on Dec. 21 by 0.1 degrees or less than a third of the moon’s width, the two planets will nonetheless remain separated in space by 450 million miles, he said.
Emily Lakdawalla, a freelance space writer, said that planetary orbits can be compared to a kind of running track, with the sun in the middle. If Jupiter is running in a circle closer to the inside, Saturn is walking farther out at a slower speed.
“She said, “Jupiter is lapping Saturn.’
Given the pace of their orbits – Jupiter takes around 12 Earth years to circle the sun compared to Saturn’s 30-the two currently align in their paths about every two decades.
But there’s a catch: because each track has a slightly different tilt, very close conjunctions like the one set for later this month are rare. Brown said the last time that Saturn and Jupiter were close enough to create a double planet” seen from Earth was in March 1226.
In 1623, the two planets were equally close, but the phenomenon was impossible to see from Earth because of the glare from the sun, he added. So the conjunction later this month will be an extraordinarily rare event.
Jupiter and Saturn have been getting closer to each other since the summer, often visible at dusk, low in the western sky. Right around the solstice, they may appear as one overlapping body above the horizon.
“Fortunately, Earth will not need to wait for eight centuries to see another “double planet.” According to projections from astronomer Patrick Hartigan of Rice University, given the tilts of each orbit, the next conjunction will be visible in 2080.
But for many, it will be their first and only chance this year to get a glimpse of the two planets seemingly merging in the sky. The lead scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia, Alan Duffy, recommends that stargazers might want to look west before then, hoping to get a better view of both Jupiter and Saturn.
“For those who are in the business of taking pretty pictures, you probably want to snap them a little earlier,” he said. Duffy offered instructions to look for two dots that, unlike stars, do not twinkle: a pure white dot for Jupiter and one with more of a golden hue for Saturn.
However the meaning behind that image may be more difficult to visualize.
“These kinds of alignments are all reminders that we are all sitting on very large gas and rocks that are rolling around the solar system in a very regular manner,” he said.
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