Saturn, Jupiter align in closest approach since 1200s

Brian Lada

One of the top astronomy events of 2020 put on a brief, but impressive, show in the sky around the globe after sunset on Dec. 21, an event unlike any other in nearly 800 years.

About once every 20 years, Jupiter and Saturn do a tight-knit dance in the night sky, an astronomical meet-up known as a conjunction. However, the two were exceptionally close during this year's conjunction - in fact, it was the closest the two have been visible in the sky since 1226.

"I think it's fair to say that such an event typically may occur just once in any one person's lifetime, and I think ‘once in my lifetime' is a pretty good test of whether something merits being labeled as rare or special," David Weintraub told The Associated Press. Weintraub is an astronomy professor at Vanderbilt University.

The event was given the unofficial nickname of the ‘Christmas star' due to the proximity to the holiday season and the fact that, to the unaided eye, the two planets shine together like a single bright star.

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The best views of the planets were seen through the eyepiece of a telescope or a pair of binoculars, allowing onlookers to see more details of the planets, including some of their largest moons.

From the perspective of the Earth, Saturn appeared closer to Jupiter than some of Jupiter's largest moons. In reality, the planets were separated by over 400 million miles.

The duo was visible for onlookers around the globe, but only to those fortunate enough to have cloud-free conditions during a small window after sunset before the planets dipped below the horizon.

Many people across the northeastern, midwestern and northwestern United States, as well as much of Canada, looked to the southwestern sky at the right time on Monday evening only to see a veil of clouds obscuring the event.

AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Lada set up a telescope to look at the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21, 2020, from central Pennsylvania but cloudy conditions prevailed. (AccuWeather/Brian Lada)

Jupiter and Saturn will remain side-by-side in the evening sky through the rest of the week, but they will gradually grow farther and farther apart each night.

The two will not appear extraordinarily close again until 2080, making it a potential twice-in-a-lifetime event for some long-lived stargazers.

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