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Science

A Bright Spot This Year: Your Guide To The Conjunction Of Jupiter And Saturn

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Ryan Wick / (CC BY 2.0)
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The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be visible this Monday night. That’s when the two planets will appear closest together in the night sky, and it's one of the most highly anticipated astronomical events of the year.

KUNC’s Rae Solomon spoke with Carla Johns, who teaches astronomy at Aims Community College and works at the Fiske planetarium in Boulder, about the conjunction. The following are highlights of their conversation.

Conjunction basics

  • Johns says to look for Saturn and Jupiter low in the southwest part of the sky. You can tell the two planets apart easily because “Saturn looks significantly dimmer… it's about a billion miles away from us, whereas Jupiter on average is about 500 million miles,” she explains.
  • “Keep watching every night because Jupiter and Saturn have been pretty close together all summer and we've been watching them get closer and closer and closer and closer," Johns told us. "Over the next couple of nights, just go out and look every single night and you'll see them get incrementally closer and closer until Monday."
  • The last time a conjunction of the two planets were this close and this visible was in the 13th century.

2020: A great year for astronomy

  • Johns says that in spite of the chaotic events here on Earth, astronomically speaking, 2020 has been a pretty spectacular year. “We were very lucky to get Comet NEOWISE this summer. In 25 years, we haven't had comets that good. And now to get a conjunction like this on the winter solstice is a treat for astronomers,” she said.
  • Interest in astronomy has grown significantly during the pandemic. “A benefit of people staying home because of COVID has been people looking for activities that they can do at home by themselves,” Johns explained.
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Carla Johns
The Observing Deck at Sommers-Bausch Observatory at the University of Colorado Boulder

  • The telescope industry has seen record demands this year. Telescopes at all price points have been sold out for months. Sales at Mile High Astronomy in Denver have doubled in the past year and new shipments sell out within a day.

Tips for approaching the night sky

  • Even if you can’t get your hands on a coveted telescope at the moment, Johns says binoculars will do in a pinch. “They're just so intuitive,” she said. “If you see something bright, you can literally just pick them up and point and make sure your focus is good.”
  • Johns says winter is a great time for stargazing, if you can handle the cold. “We usually have better seeing conditions in the winter,” she said. “The cold air makes things a lot calmer. And we usually get really nice, crisp, beautiful evenings.”
  • Johns has lots of recommendations for the beginning astronomer, from online planetarium programs like Stellarium and apps like Star Safari that give you access to free sky charts that can help you identify the constellations. Astronomy Magazine and Sky and Telescope Magazine are also good starting points.
  • Local astronomy clubs, like the Denver Astronomical Society and the Northern Colorado Astronomical Society are both active, even during the pandemic.
  • The Fiske Planetarium, where Johns works, has online programming, too, and they recently started a podcast featuring interviews with Colorado researchers on astronomical topics.
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