All year long we share astronomical events in each month, including conjunctions where two planets appear close together in the night sky. In December 2020, there’s a special conjunction happening, between Jupiter and Saturn. It’s called a Great Conjunction, because it is the rarest of all planetary conjunctions we can see here on earth.
Jupiter and Saturn have a Great Conjunction every 19.6 years, due to their orbits (11.86 years and 29.5 years, respectively). Sometimes they appear quite close together during these Great Conjunctions – other times they are so close that they seem to be touching. This year, Jupiter and Saturn will appear less than 0.1 degrees apart in the sky – closer than any time since the 17th century!
If you want to see the Great Conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, when the two appear so close together that they look like they might touch, read on. You’ll find tips on how to see this year’s Great Conjunction, including exactly when and where it’s happening!
Tip #1. Mark Your Calendar
The most important detail you need to know for seeing the Great Conjunction this year is the date: the Jupiter-Saturn Great Conjunction will only be visible on December 21, 2020.
On the days before and after this, Jupiter and Saturn will appear close together in the sky… but the moment of closest approach will only be visible on the 21st, so don’t miss it!
Be sure to check the forecast too, so you know whether you might need to plan a drive to escape cloud cover in your area.
Tip #2. Find a Good Viewing Spot
Once you’ve committed to seeing the Great Conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, your next priority is to find a good place to view the event.
Jupiter and Saturn are both visible to the un-aided eye, even in light polluted urban areas. This means you can certainly see the Great Conjunction from your backyard; use our urban stargazing guide to help make it a good experience.
If you decide to travel, find a place that’s far from bright lights of cities and shielded from direct light shining on you while you planet-gaze. (This means you don’t want to be in a parking area with overhead lights or near buildings that have lights on them.) All of our stargazing guides list places within two hours of major cities across the country; this is a great place to start researching a good location near where you live.
Tip #3. Look in the Right Part of the Sky
Viewers in the southern hemisphere will have the best view of the Great Conjunction, as the two planets will appear higher overhead than for those further north.
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the Great Conjunction will occur in the southwestern sky, so you’ll need to pick a place (as mentioned in Tip #2) that has a good southwestern view. For the best view, make sure there are no obstructions like mountains or trees to the southwest.
Once you get out to see the Great Conjunction after sunset (more on that in Tip #4), you should have no problem spotting bright Jupiter and Saturn as they approach their closest.
Tip #4. Set an Alarm
Not only does the date matter for seeing this year’s Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn will also only be visible at a specific time on December 21st. That’s why it’s important to check the time of sunset in your area and set a timer to remind you when to go out and see the two planets. (Or when to leave if you’re driving to a better viewing area.)
Here’s how to figure out the timing for the Great Conjunction in your area:
- Jupiter and Saturn are currently visible in the evenings, after sunset.
- Within 2.5 hours after sunset, Jupiter and Saturn will both have set.
- The two planets are setting increasingly early each night, so your best opportunity to see the Great Conjunction is shortly after sunset.
- To maximize your time enjoying the Great Conjunction viewing opportunity, plan to go out just after sunset (during civil twilight) and view until the planets set.
Tip #5. Use Your Telescope!
Part of what makes this Great Conjunction so special is exactly how close Jupiter and Saturn will be. The two are appearing just 6.1 arcminutes (<0.1°) apart in the sky… from an astronomical perspective, this is practically on top of one another!
Jupiter and Saturn haven’t appeared this close to each other in a Great Conjunction since 1623, and are close enough to be see in the view of a telescope. That itself isn’t common – most conjunctions aren’t that close!
So if you have a telescope, now’s the time to pull it out and use it! If you need suggestions, we have a list of telescopes for every budget from $200 to $2000. Consider it an early holiday present to yourself!
To sum it up: the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be visible in the two hours after sunset on December 21st.
Have other questions about how to see the Great Conjunction this year? Let us know in the comments.