Philly astronomers will watch the great ‘planetary conjunction’ with childlike awe, and wish they could share their telescopes
Tonight, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in the sky than they have since the year 1226.
Arcing high in the heavens above a raging virus, searing-tweet politics, and whatever may be going on with Carson Wentz, a cosmic tango is developing for all the Earth to see.
There in the southwestern sky at twilight, Jupiter and Saturn appear to be quitting their orbits and speeding toward one another like lovers in the starlight to form what almost looks like a super planet.
This so-called planetary conjunction occurs every two decades. But, as with all things 2020, this year is different: The planets appear to be separated by a mere sliver of sky, displaying an apparent closeness not seen since the year 1226.
“These are the kinds of things that re-connect me to why I fell in love with astronomy in the first place,” said John Bochanski, an astronomer with a poetic soul who lives in Holland, Bucks County, and teaches at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. “It’s a great event because it’s accessible to us all.”
What he means is it’s easy to see with the naked eye. You’ll notice two points of light within kissing distance of each other from around 5:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in roughly the same spot on the horizon where the sun sets. This will be visible from now until Dec. 21.
Beyond a scientific wonder, the phenomenon is also being viewed with growing interest by some astrologers (never to be confused with astronomers — like, never), who dutifully connect celestial movements with terrestrial doings.
For example, Bustle magazine tells us that the conjunction “will inspire us to rebel against the status quo, think outside of the box, and embrace a more innovative future.”
Still, a few things about the solar system’s maneuvers need to be explained.
First, Jupiter and Saturn, the two biggest planets in the solar system, are not moving into tighter proximity.
“Reporters need to clean up their writing about this,” said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, who’s noticed sloppy accounts of big spheres bee-lining toward one another splashed across various publications.
From our vantage point on Earth — itself sliding swiftly through the cosmos — Jupiter and Saturn appear to growing closer to each other, Pitts said. “But,” he added, “they are really about 450 million miles apart.”
The planetary conjunction, for newbies
Picture an analog clock, Bochanski said. The sun is at the center, the Earth is a little way out, Jupiter is farther away, Saturn is farther still. During a conjunction, think of the Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn each aligning at different points along the minute hand.
Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and others proved that planets never break their orbits around the sun, said Ed Guinan, professor of astronomy at Villanova University. “So, there’s no evidence they are getting closer to each other.”
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If COVID-19 weren’t a factor, he said, there would be opportunities for people to view the conjunction from Villanova’s three telescopes. “We’d have had an open-house night to look up at what’s happening,” Guinan added.
But he said, anyone can enjoy the night sight by simply looking up, although binoculars would aid the experience.
‘My goodness, it’s fun to see’
As fun as they are, conjunctions offer astronomers little in the way of scientific value, Pitts said.
“No one’s writing a paper to reveal a revolutionary principle, or pointing research telescopes at it,” he said. “Conjunctions are events whose significance diminished as we became more sophisticated in understanding the nature of planets.”
But, Pitts added, barely repressing the sense of joy he still possesses about the world above our heads, “Oh, my goodness, it’s fun to see: two bright planets, and you can watch things happen without special training.”
While scientists were voluble, local astrologers and psychics had little to say about the conjunction.
Most echoed what astrologer Patricia Miller of World of Astrology in Mount Laurel said: “I don’t even know what the conjunction is.”
That’s not the case, however, among publications such as Allure, which are all in on astrological portent.
“You can use [the planets’ combined energy] to make big, positive changes in your life,” Allure tells us. “How can you make the most of this energy?”
The magazine goes on to say that Jupiter is “a generous leader who’s associated with health, wealth, and having a good time.”
Saturn, meanwhile, “favors strict responsibility and setting limits.”
Allure says that the conjunction is special because it’s in the constellation of Aquarius, “the sign of social change.”
Not so much, said Pitts. Jupiter and Saturn are now in Sagittarius, and will move to Capricornus soon. No age of Aquarius.
“Still,” Pitts said, “it’s all really cool.” Science and astrology aside, Bochanski reminded us, the conjunction teaches the world to keep things simple.
“To have these two points of light tucked next to each other,” he said, “is a rare and beautiful thing.”