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Put a ring on it

Evoking ‘Star of Bethlehem,’ Jupiter and Saturn go cheek-to-cheek

The planets align in a rare celestial dance — more than 730 million kilometers apart, but closer to each other than at any time in almost 400 years

In this December 13, 2020, photo made available by NASA, Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Virginia. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
In this December 13, 2020, photo made available by NASA, Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Virginia. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

PARIS, France (AFP) — The solar system’s two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are set to come within planetary kissing range in Monday’s evening sky, an intimacy that will not occur again until 2080.

This “great conjunction,” as it is known to astronomers, occurs fortuitously on the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere, and the beginning of summer in the global south.

The two planets will, in fact, be more than 730 million kilometers (400 million miles) apart.

But because of their alignment in relation to Earth, they will appear to be closer to each other than at any time in almost 400 years.

Optimal “conjunction” is set to take place at 1822 GMT.

The timing of the event — on the winter solstice, just before the Christmas holiday — has led some to speculate about whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible reports led the wise men to Joseph, Mary and the newly born Jesus — the Star of Bethlehem.

Seen with a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars, the two gas giants will be separated by no more than a fifth of the diameter of a full moon.

מחזה של פעם בחייםסופרים את השעות לקראת מחר (21.12 יום שני). ב-16:50 הטלסקופים יכוונו אל נקודה בשמיים ואז זה יגיע: נחזה…

Posted by ‎שירת הכוכבים‎ on Sunday, December 20, 2020

With the naked eye, they will merge into a “highly luminous” double planet, said Florent Deleflie from the Paris Observatory.

The last time Jupiter and Saturn nuzzled up this close was in 1623, but weather conditions in regions where the reunion could be seen blocked the view.

Visibility was apparently better the time before that during the Middle Ages, on March 4, 1226, to be precise.

The best viewing conditions on Monday will be in clear skies and close to the Equator.

People in Western Europe and along a vast swath of Africa will have to train their sight to the southwest.

“The Grand Conjunction refers to the period when two planets have relatively similar positions in relation to Earth,” said Deleflie.

Jupiter, which is the larger planet, takes 12 years to revolve around the sun, while Saturn takes 29 years.

Every 20 years or so, they appear to observers on Earth to come closer to each other.

“With a small instrument — even a small pair of binoculars — people can see Jupiter’s equatorial bands and its main satellites and Saturn’s rings,” Deleflie said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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