Wednesday, December 23, 2020

When Jupiter aligned with Saturn -- Dec. 24, 2020 column


In the longest, darkest nights of the year, we turn to the light.

We set electric candles in windows, light the Hanukkah menorah and the Kwanzaa Kinara, and decorate Christmas trees with strings of light.

We adorn our houses, trees, shrubs and lamp posts with colored, white, twinkling and flashing lights – the flashier the better.

The light show this pandemic holiday season started earlier and seemed brighter and more sparkly than in other years. Since more people were staying home for the holidays, they evidently amped up their displays. We need it.

Our holiday lights outshine those in the night sky, but this December the heavens offered us a rare treat: the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn.

The giant planets aligned and from Earth appeared as one bright star on Dec. 21. The planets appeared to be just a tenth of a degree apart – about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length, NASA reported.

How rare was it? The last time the two planets appeared to be this close to each other was during the Middle Ages.

“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,” said Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan.

Taking such a long view of the natural phenomenon raises questions. What were people thinking and doing in 1226 when they looked up to see this bright “star” in the night sky? Were they as consumed by their daily cares as we are by ours? Surely, they were, but we know little about 1226 except that the “great conjunction” took place.  

More recently, but still about 400 years ago -- as Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War and the New World’s Plymouth Colony welcomed two additional ships -- Jupiter and Saturn were nearly as close on July 16, 1623, as they were this week.

In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, had discovered the moons of Jupiter and an oval around Saturn that became known as its rings. There’s no record of Galileo viewing the conjunction of the two planets 13 years later, however.

The timing of the “great conjunction” so close to Christmas this year was coincidental – the planets come together every 20 years, although we on Earth can’t always see the event -- but it called to mind the story in the Gospel of Matthew about the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men. Astronomers believe a similar conjunction did happen around the time of Jesus’s birth.

The very bright “star” is an optical effect. Jupiter and Saturn were 500 million miles apart on Monday. The event was bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. Or, for those under cloudy skies, observatories closed because COVID-19 to in-person viewing parties live-streamed the conjunction.

People around the world paused and looked up. For a few minutes, we could put aside our worries about the coronavirus pandemic, economic hardship and political struggles and marvel at the bigger picture overhead.

Mankind has always consulted the night skies for guidance on sailing the seas and when to plant crops. Looking into the night sky sparks questions about how we got here and how we fit into the universe. The ancient Greeks believed the gods placed the constellations in the sky to give us lessons on how to live.

While most of us have lost our connections to the heavens, astronomical events like the “great conjunction” fire our imaginations and help us feel connected to other inhabitants of our blue dot of a planet.

In his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot,” astronomer Carl Sagan wrote about a photo of Earth taken from a space:

 “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The next time Jupiter and Saturn will be this close is March 15, 2080. Mark your calendar.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.





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