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Arts & Culture

How To See The ‘Great Conjunction’ Of Jupiter And Saturn From Charlotte

Saturn and Jupiter Conjunction
NASA/Bill Ingalls/(NASA/Bill Ingalls)
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(NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Virginia. The two planets are drawing closer to each other in the sky as they head towards a “great conjunction” on December 21, where the two giant planets will appear a tenth of a degree apart. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It’s … been a year. But 2020’s exiting the building in style. For a few hours on Monday evening, earthlings will be able to watch the “great conjunction” of the solar system's two biggest planets in a fashion not seen in centuries.

“As soon as it gets dark, you should see Jupiter and Saturn very close together,” said Ken Steiner, president of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club. “In fact, it may look like almost just one. They’re only going to be one-tenth of a degree apart.”

Of course, that’s a much bigger difference than it appears to us down here.

“It looks like they’re colliding, (but) they’re over 400 million miles apart,” Steiner said.

Jupiter and Saturn appear aligned about every 20 years. The last so-called “great conjunction” was in May 2000, but the planets were hard to see for most people because of the sun’s glare. The last time they appeared this close was July 1623 — but they haven’t been this close together and this visible to the naked eye since March 4, 1226.

This time around, nearly everyone on Earth can watch, according to NASA. And, of all days, it’s happening on the winter solstice.

“Conjunctions like this could happen on any day of the year, depending on where the planets are in their orbits,” said Henry Throop, an astronomer in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, said in an article published by the space agency. “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 solstice is the longest night of the year, so this rare coincidence will give people a great chance to go outside and see the solar system.”

So far, the weather looks like it plans to cooperate for much of the Charlotte region and western North Carolina.

“We’re going to have a lot of cloudiness in the area (Monday) morning, but that’s actually going to be clearing out in the afternoon,” said Trisha Palmer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Greenville-Spartanburg office in South Carolina, which covers the Charlotte region.

Palmer notes, though, that it could be windy in the evening and that some areas in the North Carolina high country near Boone may have obscured views by a cold front that’s moving in.

Steiner says to wait for dusk and look to the southwest horizon “right where the sun looks like it’s setting.” Just pick a spot that doesn’t have many trees or buildings blocking the view.

There’s a small window to catch the show. Sunset on Monday is right at 5:15 p.m., and Jupiter and Saturn should set below the horizon just after 7:30 p.m. The next time the conjunction could appear as visibly is expected to be 2080.

People who aren’t able to make it outside or who can’t find a good view can stream the show live. The Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club plans to broadcast the great conjunction on Facebook from the Gayle H. Riggsbee Observatory in Kershaw, South Carolina.

NASA is also streaming.

One other perk: Watching the sky, whether from a park or the internet, is an activity that lends itself to social distancing.

“It would be a great family event to go outside, and you don’t have to be in a closed space around a lot of people,” Steiner said. “Be safe with the COVID-19 restrictions and enjoy the night sky and the wonderful cosmos we live in.”

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