If popular culture has taught us anything about the holidays, it's that this is a season of reunions: a time when people conquer great distances and lengthy separations just to be together again. Usually, though, such stories involve cross-country trips — not the orbits of the two largest planets in our solar system.
This year is different.
On Dec. 21, Jupiter and Saturn — which are actually separated by more than 400 million miles — are expected to appear closer to each other in the night sky than they have for centuries. Seen at the right hour, whether by telescope or the naked eye, the gas giants will be separated by roughly a fifth of the diameter of the typical full moon. At this proximity, the planets will appear to touch or even form one large, brilliant star in the sky.
The spectacle is a curious effect of their orbits. Since Jupiter takes a little less than 12 years to circle the sun and Saturn takes more than 29, the planets appear to earthlings to meet roughly every 20 years, in what astronomers call a "great conjunction." The last great conjunction occurred in May 2000, though its position in the sky at the time meant the average stargazer likely lost it in the glare of the sun.
But you'll need to reach much further into the past to find the last instance such a conjunction was this close and this visible to stargazers. The Perth Observatory in Australia says that Jupiter and Saturn last approached this closely to each other in July 1623, but as with the conjunction in 2000, it was hard to spot.
"You'd have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky," Patrick Hartigan, an astronomer at Rice University, explained in a statement last month.
There's still another holiday connection at work here, beyond a simple coincidence of timing. Some astronomers, dating back to Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, have conjectured that the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to Jesus Christ's birthplace in the Bible was a conjunction like the one set to appear later this month — although likely one involving different planets.
Saturn and Jupiter began appearing close to each other this past summer, but this spectacle of proximity will be clearest beginning in mid-December.
"Look for them low in the southwest in the hour after sunset. And on December 21st, the two giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart — that's about the thickness of a dime held at arm's length!" NASA explained earlier this month. "This means the two planets and their moons will be visible in the same field of view through binoculars or a small telescope. In fact, Saturn will appear as close to Jupiter as some of Jupiter's moons."
After the winter solstice, the two planets will appear to begin moving apart again.
Now, this sentimental holiday reunion is no Hallmark movie; if you miss it this year, don't expect to see it again next December. Astronomers say there won't be another great conjunction this close until 2080.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you look up at the night sky these days, you may catch a rare spectacle - Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer to one another than they have for centuries. As NPR's Colin Dwyer reports, the big event has arrived at just the right time.
COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: It's the holiday season, and if pop culture has taught us anything, it's that this is a time of reunions. It's a time when people conquer great distances just to be together again. Usually, though, these kinds of stories involve cross-country trips, not the two largest planets in our solar system. This year was different. This winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn get to share the spotlight, says planetary scientist Konstantin Batygin.
KONSTANTIN BATYGIN: What's special about the event on the 21 of December is that they're going to come really, really, really close to one another on the night sky. And they're only going to be about a dime apart.
DWYER: He's a professor at CalTech, and he points out that the two gas giants are actually separated by about half a billion miles. But seen from Earth, their orbits make them appear to approach one another roughly every 20 years in something called a great conjunction. Planetary scientist Renu Malhotra teaches at the University of Arizona. She says it's even more rare for them to appear this close and for earthlings to actually get to see it.
RENU MALHOTRA: The last time it was actually visible in the night sky was something like 800 years ago.
DWYER: She recommends starting your stargazing as soon as possible.
MALHOTRA: Over a single night, if you just go out and look at the sky, look at these planets, you know, for a minute or two, they're not going to look like they're moving. But if you look from night to night is when you will get that experience of the planets moving closer together and then moving farther apart.
DWYER: The planets are visible just after sunset, hanging like bright stars over the Western horizon. To the naked eye, the two bright lights may look a bit like a snowman, with Saturn's smaller light nearly heaped on top of Jupiter. And if you break out a telescope, an even cooler sight awaits, says CalTech's Batygin.
BATYGIN: This is one of these rare occasions where if you were an amateur astronomer and you have really any kind of telescope - a small one will do - you can readily swivel from Jupiter to Saturn and look at Saturn's rings and Jupiter's satellites almost all in the same image, which is pretty cool.
AMANDA BOSH: It's really wonderful to just get that - you know, to experience those photons with your own eyes.
DWYER: That's Amanda Bosh, the operations manager at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
BOSH: We are on this planet that is orbiting the sun. And this kind of motion really shows that, where we can see something from night to night getting closer.
DWYER: It's a moving experience, to be sure, but it's no Hallmark movie, even though the observatory is livestreaming the night the planets are the closest on December 21. If you miss it this year, don't expect a rerun next December. Some astronomers say the next great conjunction this close and this visible will be in 60 years. Colin Dwyer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN'S "STAR POWER I: OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.