I’ve been seeing Saturn and Jupiter coming closer to each other in the sky lately. Jupiter passes by Saturn every 19.6 years, and it’s called a great conjunction. But I just learned that on December 21st they’ll look closer than they have since March 1226! They’ll be just 0.1 degrees apart: 6.1 arcminutes, to be precise. That’s less than a fifth of the Moon’s apparent width.
Here’s the expected view from New York on December 16th, 45 minutes after sunset, when there will also be a crescent Moon:
Jupiter and Saturn were even closer on July 17, 1623—just 5.2 arcminutes apart—but the glare from the the Sun made them invisible from Earth. There will be another close great conjunction on March 15, 2080. Jupiter and Saturn will be just 6.0 arcminutes apart then! If you’re young, maybe you can see that one. Not me.
On February 16, 7541, Jupiter will actually pass in front of part of Saturn! This called a transit. But if you can wait that long, you might as well wait for June 17, 7541, when Jupiter will completely block the view of Saturn. This is called an occultation.
So yes, Jupiter passes by Saturn more than once that year! In fact it’ll do it three times: this is called a triple conjunction. Because the Earth moves around the Sun much faster than Jupiter or Saturn, these planets sometimes seem to move backwards in the sky, and thanks to this, there are some great conjunctions where Jupiter and Saturn come close to each other in the sky three times in rapid succession, like in 1682–1683:
I got this picture from here:
• Patrick Hartigan, Jupiter-Saturn conjunction series from 0 CE to 3000 CE.
You can have a lot of fun reading this. Since Jupiter and Saturn are in a 5:2 orbital resonance—that is, Jupiter orbits the Sun 5 times in the time it takes Saturn to go around twice—the great conjunctions are not random. Instead, they follow interesting patterns!
Puzzle. Why are triple conjunctions more common than double conjunctions?