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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Astronomers set for once-in-a-lifetime event

A once-in-400-year astronomical event will give a clear view of Saturn and Jupiter from gardens across the Hunter in what astronomers call a ‘great conjunction’. 

For the next two weeks, the alignments of Jupiter and Saturn will appear close together in the sky in a line-of-sight alignment.

The last time the two planets appeared this close was over 400 years ago, observed then by astronomers like Galileo Galilei

University of Newcastle Astrophysicist Dr Heath Jones explained the conjunction was an “exceedingly rare” event. 

“Jupiter and Saturn are both bright enough to see easily in the night sky – provided you know where to look,” Dr Jones said.

“They look like two bright ‘stars’ but, unlike actual stars, they won’t twinkle noticeably (an easy way to spot a planet from a star in the sky).

“During the conjunction they will be exceedingly close together – closer than a pinkie finger held at arm’s length.

“But most people should be able to see them and split them with the naked eye.”

Whilst the two planets will be visible with the naked eye, Dr Jones commented that enthusiasts should utilise their equipment to get an even better view. 

“A good pair of binoculars may also show one or two moons of Jupiter very close for some keen eyed viewers,” he said.

“Through a small telescope, Jupiter can be seen with its cloud bands and its four brightest moons beside it.

“Saturn, of course, has its magnificent ring system.”

The two planets will be closest on the evening of Monday 21 December, and should be visible from Newcastle with a low and unobscured western horizon. 

“Look low in the southwest about an hour after sunset,” Dr Jones said.

“Start by looking for Jupiter, which is the brighter of the two, and one of the first things to come out as the sky starts to darken.

“And then look for Saturn, a small distance away, and a bit fainter.”

For those wanting to photograph the event, Dr Jones advises using a telephoto lens with short exposure times. 

Whilst conjunctions can occur at any time of year, some historical conjunctions have a distinctly Christmassy feel, as astronomers have found particularly notable conjunctions between bright planets around the time of Jesus’ birth, which historians linked to the Star of Bethlehem