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Tonight is the Night for the Best Viewing Opportunity to See the Christmas Star

Jupiter and Saturn draw nearer toward a great conjunction, as seen over Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge during the evening hours of Friday, Dec. 19. On Monday, Dec. 21, they’ll appear to be only 0.1 degree apart.

By Nathan Ham

Tonight, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will happen in the southwest sky, and though there are a few clouds in the High Country, finding a clear area will give you a beautiful view of the planetary conjunction, more commonly called the Christmas Star this time of year.

When two planets such as Saturn and Jupiter appear to pass right next to each other in the sky, it’s considered a great conjunction. When it happens around the Christmas holiday, it is known as the Christmas Star or the Star of Bethlehem. This year, Saturn and Jupiter will make their closest pass by earth in almost 800 years and will not be this close again until March 15, 2080. After that, it will be the year 2400 before Saturn and Jupiter are this close to Earth. The last date that Saturn and Jupiter were this closely aligned prior to now was March 4, 1226. 

While Monday night is the time when the planets are closest together, stargazers can still see the conjunction in the sky through December 25. Strangely enough, while the planets will appear so close together thanks to their orbit, in reality, Saturn and Jupiter will still be millions of miles away from each other. 

Some astronomers believe that this same conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter took place on the night of Jesus Christ’s birth and it is an omen that points to the second coming of Christ. Other astronomers have researched and found that the three wise men traveled while following a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. 

If there are clouds where you are at, you can still see some great views of the Christmas Star online. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, will begin a live stream at 7 p.m. ET that can be seen live on their YouTube page. The Virtual Telescope Project in Rome will also be sharing live views on its website.

Photos by Todd Bush | Todd Bush Photography, courtesy of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

According to NASA, “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.”
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.