On December 21, 2020 Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in our sky than they have since the year 1623 — only .10º apart. By way of comparison, Earth’s Moon covers about .50º on average! In fact, the two planets will have so little visual separation that they may appear as one bright “star” in our evening sky. As with many objects we see in our night sky, planets Jupiter and Saturn will only appear to be near to each other; they will will be physically separated by about 456 million miles.
Here’s why the planets will appear so close in our sky:
Viewed from Earth and looking out toward Jupiter and Saturn we see the planets as if they were in the same orbit — like watching runners in their separate lanes as one overtakes the other. Viewed from “above” we can see that the planets remain well apart.
As we drop lower and closer to the orbital plane it becomes more difficult to separate Jupiter and Saturn until, on December 21, 2020, we won’t be able to see them as discrete objects without the use of a telescope!
While the previous extremely close conjunction took place in 1623, Jupiter and Saturn were too close to the Sun to be observed. The last time they could actually be seen so close together was even longer ago: on March 4, 1226. Great Conjunctions take place just short of 20 years apart and most are not so close as this year’s — the next will take place on October 31, 2040, when Jupiter and Saturn will be separated by 1.1º which will be close, but not so amazing as 2020.
If you plan to take a look, you’ll need clear skies (of course!) and you’ll need to be timely — the planetary pair will become visible low in the southwestern sky with the fading twilight and will set in the west by 7:20 PM, December 21. To see the individual planets during their close encounter will require a telescope — a small one will do — or a decent telephoto lens on a camera mounted on a tripod. Given good optics and clear skies, viewers will be able to make out the Galilean Moons of Jupiter and, perhaps spy Titan, Saturn’s brightest moon.
Before and after the 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will appear close together as they first approach, and then recede from the conjunction, continuing to move along their orbital paths. The historic astronomical event will be one night and one night only in our lifetimes. Clear skies, please!