FIU@Home: Discover the Solstice ‘Great Conjunction’

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On the longest night of 2020, there was something in the sky that hadn’t been seen since March 4, 1226. The conjunction of two planets – Saturn and Jupiter – were visible for the first time in nearly 800 years.

The last time this rare astronomical event occurred, the Incans were not yet an empire in their recently founded city of Cuzco. Genghis Khan, the first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, was on his last military campaign across western Xia. In France, King Louis the IX was taking the throne and ushering in a medieval golden age for the country.

The human eyes to gaze on it did so without many of the tools we take for granted today — the telescope hadn’t even been invented yet. In astronomy, a conjunction is when two astronomical objects appear to be close together when viewed from earth.

It’s important to note these planets aren’t actually close together in space – they are still hundreds of millions of miles apart. Their orbits around the sun simply align with Earth’s in a way that the two planets appear nearly on top of each other in the night sky. The last time our solar system’s gas giants appeared this close together was 1623, but because of the position of the sun it hasn’t been visible since 1226.

Jupiter Saturn conjunction

In 2020, on Monday, Dec. 21, our solar system’s gas giants appeared to be within one-tenth of a degree apart. Close enough, depending on atmospheric conditions and the sharpness of viewers’ eyes, in some locations they even looked like one massive celestial object.

The biggest difference between the night sky in 1226 and now? Light pollution. The proliferation of excessive and obtrusive artificial light not only washes out the night sky, making star gazing and astronomical research more difficult, but also disrupts ecosystems while negatively impacting on our own the darker sky of the early 13th century would have made the event far more visible, individual human eyes also play a role.

For many, this celestial phenomenon evoked the iconic image of the Star of Bethlehem or the “Christmas Star.” So while you research this unique occurrence online, pair your journey with some holiday listening favorites. The following yule-tide tunes give the star (or stars) a brief mention and may be worth adding to your stargazing playlist: 

  1. Christmas Star – John Williams
  2. Do You Hear What I Hear? – Bing Crosby
  3. The First Noel – Nat King Cole
  4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Michael Bublé
  5. Silent Night – Pentatonix

If you are already tired of hearing holiday hymns, you can always cue up Webb’s music. He also recommends musician Muriel Anderson, particularly:

  1. Nightlight Daylight
  2. Eclipse

Be sure to share your favorite holiday stargazing playlist for this once in a lifetime event with us on social media @FIUCASE.

With South Florida’s only research-grade telescope, the Stocker AstroScience Center provides stunning views of stars clusters, galaxies, planets, moons and more. Follow FIU@Home for more self-guided journeys through the universe.

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