Jupiter and Saturn appeared closer in the night sky tonight than in 800 years – and formed a heavenly beacon that resembles the “Star of Bethlehem”.
The gas giants – the largest planets in the solar system – have been slowly approaching the sky since summer and appear like a double planetary system.
At the same time as the winter solstice, the conjunction could be seen from anywhere on earth.
The planets looked about a fifth the width of a full moon apart tonight – they appear low over the horizon in Britain – and can be seen for the rest of the week leading up to Christmas Day.
The German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote in 1614 that he believed that the "star of Bethlehem" in the nativity story was a connection between Jupiter and Saturn.
Other researchers have instead suggested that the "three wise men" might have followed a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.
While Venus won't be part of this week's conjunction, it will be an impressive astronomical site – one that is best seen at the equator but is visible worldwide.
The event takes place during a busy week for stargazers, with the Ursid meteor shower – the last one this year – peaking tonight and lasting into the early morning.
At its height, the shower produces about five shooting stars per hour, which burn up when going through the atmosphere at about 36 miles per second.
Like the conjunction, the ursides are visible to the naked eye – but most easily seen in areas with low light pollution.
Scroll down for video
Jupiter and Saturn above Oban on the Sound of Kerrera, a waterway that separates the islands of Kerrera, Argyll and Bute and looks out over the Western Isles in Scotland
Saturn (top) and Jupiter (bottom) have appeared since July 1623 in an image taken in central Seoul, South Korea
Jupiter and Saturn appeared closer in the sky tonight than in the last 800 years – and formed a celestial fire that resembles the “Star of Bethlehem”. Pictured how the night sky appeared in the southwest at the winter solstice tonight
The gas giants – the largest planets in the solar system – have been slowly approaching the sky since summer and appear like a double planetary system. Pictured: Saturn (above) and Jupiter (below) converge this evening in the sky over Damascus, Syria
The planets looked less than a full moon apart – they appeared low over the horizon to British viewers – and for the rest of the week leading up to Christmas Day. Pictured Saturn (top) and Jupiter (bottom) between the twin towers of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Topeka, Kansas, on December 19, 2020
Saturn and Jupiter appeared just after sunset tonight in the southwest low on the horizon – less than a full moon width apart – and appeared almost as one object
Viewers with a telescope looking at the conjunction saw not only Jupiter and Saturn, but also some of their largest moons in the same field of view, astronomers said
The German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote in 1614 that he believed that the "star of Bethlehem" in the nativity story was a connection between Jupiter and Saturn
HOW TO CATCH IT
The connection between Jupiter and Saturn was visible to the eye worldwide.
The best views were from places along the Earth's equator.
From the UK, the planets appeared to overlap almost over the horizon in the southwest for an hour tonight after sunset – starting at 3.48.
The phenomenon will be visible for the rest of the week leading up to Christmas.
Those with a telescope may also be able to see some of the largest moons of Jupiter and Saturn in the same field of view, experts have said.
University of Central Lancashire astrophysicist Megan Argo told BBC Radio 4 Today that the event was highly unusual.
"The best way to look is to go outside after sunset, when the sky has gotten a little dark and Jupiter should be the first thing you see in the night sky after the moon," she explained.
Dr. Argo added that the views are best from places with a good western horizon – clear of trees and buildings.
Those in London and New York saw the planets near the horizon – at about 5.3 ° and 7.5 °, respectively – about an hour after sunset this evening.
"Alignments between these two planets tend to be rare and occur about every 20 years," said astronomer Patrick Hartigan of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
"But this conjunction is exceptionally rare because the planets are close together," he explained.
"You would have to go back to just before sunrise on March 4, 1226 to see closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky."
A similar conjunction also occurred in 1623 – but at that point the planets would only have been visible during the day, making them very difficult to see.
The next time Jupiter and Saturn appear this close to the sky, it won't be until March 15, 2080 – when they are higher in the sky and visible longer.
The next such connection of the two bodies after that will not take place until sometime after the year 2400.
"On the evening of closest rapprochement on December 21st, they will look like a double planet separated by only 1/5 the diameter of the full moon," added Professor Hartigan.
"For most telescope viewers, every planet and several of its largest moons will be visible in the same field of view this evening."
Saturn and Jupiter close together in the night sky over Jersey City, New Jersey, on December 18, 2020 (picture)
"You would have to go back to just before sunrise on March 4, 1226 to see closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky," said astronomer Patrick Hartigan of Rice University in Houston, Texas. Pictured (left) Saturn and Jupiter are approaching in the night sky over Las Vegas, Nevada on December 20
The next time Jupiter and Saturn appear this close to the sky, it won't be until March 15, 2080 – by that time they will be higher in the sky and be visible longer
Twitter users have shared images of the night sky showing Jupiter and Saturn (halfway between the trees) as they have grown closer together over the past few weeks
While Kepler believed a connection between Jupiter and Saturn was behind the story of the star of Bethlehem in the Bible, others believed that it might be a different astronomical event – for example, a large comet in the sky.
Professor Hartigan said the planetary duo would appear low in the western sky around sunset – and bright enough to be viewed in the twilight sky.
In reality, the two planets are still millions of miles apart – Jupiter is approximately 5 AU from Earth (one AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun) and Saturn is 10 AU from Earth – but they appear different because of Differences together orbit.
When Jupiter and Saturn (shown here as bright lights) come together, they are visible in the southwest sky at dusk
Having "approached" since summer, the giant planets will appear less than a full moon apart shortly after sunset on the winter solstice tonight
The two planets gradually got closer and closer in November and December to appear as a single object tonight – before they part after Christmas
"The further north a viewer is, the less time they will have to peek at the conjunction before the planets sink below the horizon," said Professor Hartigan.
"For example, if the sky in Houston is completely dark, the conjunction will only be 9 degrees above the horizon," he added.
"To see that would be manageable if the weather cooperates and you have a clear view to the southwest."
Viewers with a telescope who saw the conjunction earlier tonight saw not only Jupiter and Saturn, but also some of their largest moons in the same field of view, astronomers have said.
Users shared images of Jupiter and Saturn that appear as bright stars as they got closer in advance of their today's conjunction on December 21st
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM: INSPIRED THE THREE WISE MEN TO BABY JESUS IN BIBLE STORIES
The star of Bethlehem or the poinsettia is said to have inspired the three wise men from the east to visit the baby Jesus in Bible stories.
It appears in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, where they are said to have asked King Herod of Judea where he was born as King of the Jews. For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. & # 39;
It is said that the star took them to the hometown of Jesus, where they worshiped him and gave him gifts of golden frankincense and myrrh.
The Gospel describes the visitors as "magicians", which is usually translated as "broad men", but can also be described as an astronomer / astrologer.
Astronomers have made several attempts to calculate what that star could have been – whether it was a celestial event or a pious fiction.
The famous German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote in 1614 that he believed that the "Star of Bethlehem" in the biblical story of the three wise men could have been a rare triple lead from Jupiter, Saturn and Venus.
This would create a very bright point of light in the sky that would only appear for a few days. A similar conjunction should take place at Christmas 2020.
Other theories are a supernova explosion that comes pretty close – which could appear like a very, very bright sky or even a comet for a relatively short period of time.
Chinese and Korean stargazers have written over a bright object that may have been around 5 BC. Was a comet or supernova and has been seen for more than 70 days
Ancient astronomers wrote about comets that "hang" over certain cities – just as the star of Bethlehem is supposed to "stand" over the place where Jesus was born – the city of Bethlehem.
(tagsToTranslate) Dailymail (t) sciencetech (t) London