I hope you’ve all been checking out the close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the southwestern sky just after dark. Jupiter is the bright one. Saturn is dimmer and up and to the left.
The two planets will be getting closer to each other over the next few days. Their nearest approach will culminate during the evening of the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21, when the planets will be only six arc minutes apart, as astronomy types like to say.
How close will they be? The last time they were closer was during the Great Conjunction of 1623.
By comparison, the moon is 31 arc minutes across, about the diameter of your little fingernail held at arm’s length. Jupiter and Saturn will be a scant one-fifth of the full moon’s diameter apart at their closest approach.
Since Jupiter is much brighter than Saturn, Jupiter’s glare might wash out dimmer Saturn. Or if you have a bit of astigmatism in the eyes, the planets may seem to merge into one.
You’ll probably get a better view with binoculars. You might also be able to see some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s brighter moons near the two planets.
In a small telescope at medium magnification, the two planets should fit into the same field of view. That’s a sight I am particularly looking forward to. Imagine Saturn and its rings and Jupiter and its zebra-striped cloud bands in a single telescope field. Then throw in Jupiter’s bright moons lined up in a row and a scattering of Saturn’s moons. Hotcha!
Astronomers call such alignments of planets conjunctions, which are no big deal. Conjunctions of one planet with another happen all the time. For example, Venus zips around the sun every 255 days. It’s bound to get close to other planets frequently.
Alignments of Jupiter and Saturn are a different story entirely.
As the farthest-out planet visible to the unaided eye, Saturn is also the slowest moving of the “ancient” planets. Because of its enormous distance from the sun, around 900 million miles, Saturn takes 29.6 Earth years to make one circuit around the sky.
Jupiter is closer than Saturn and takes only 11.8 years to make one circuit. Jupiter may be moving more than twice as fast, but Jupiter still takes a while to lap Saturn. Consequently, a conjunction of the two slowest-moving planets occurs only once every 19.6 years.
As a result, we’re not seeing any old conjunction here. We’re talking a Great Conjunction, as astronomers traditionally call such close pairings of Jupiter and Saturn.
The last Great Conjunction occurred in 2000. It added a bit of apocalyptic apoplexy to the millennial malarkey. Luckily, the end of the world did not happen, at least so far as I can determine.
Unfortunately, the 2000 Great Conjunction happened when the two planets were very close to the sun in the sky. The sun’s glare made it very difficult to see with the unaided eye. By the time the sky was dark enough to see it well, the planets had already set.
Given the infrequency of great conjunctions and the sometimes-difficult viewing options, the Great Conjunction of 2020 becomes, even for diehard stargazers, a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime event.
The same was true for our ancient forebears, only more so. People didn’t live nearly so long in ancient times as they did today.
A Saturn year (about 30 years) was near the limit of most human lives. People who lived long enough to see Saturn pass twice around the sky were old indeed — and lucky.
Their lives passed quickly and often painfully. They succumbed to what we would now consider a premature death brought on by poverty and disease.
Time was their enemy, their future a fearful mystery. They naturally looked to the gods for answers.
They found those gods in the sky as planets. According to the ancient Greeks, the universe began in Chaos. Out of Chaos sprang Gaia, Mother Earth. Gaia begat Uranus, the personified Sky. And then Uranus begat Cronus (Saturn to the Romans), old Father Time. And then Cronus sired Zeus (the Roman Jupiter), who became king of the gods.
The gods were sometimes cruel to humans and sometimes kind. If humans could somehow determine the emotional states of the planetary gods, they could at least get an idea of the forces arrayed for and against them.
The ever-changing emotional responses of the gods seemed to be determined by their positions in the sky as they wandered from constellation to constellation.
Astrology thus was born out of an attempt to make the most out of a short, brutal life.
Hard as it is to believe, the old astrological superstitions survive even now. As one might expect, the current Great Conjunction has generated the usual, often-contradictory astrological speculations.
Astrologist Amelia Quint sees “the start of a new era where people of all sexualities and gender identities will be able to express themselves and love who they love without judgment, criticism, or political intervention blocking their path to equality and equity.”
On the other hand, the website “Astrology for Aquarius” sees a period of “unexpected events, big shocks, sudden change, disruption, social unrest, rebellious behavior, protests, and civil disobedience.”
The oddest of the Great Conjunction claims comes from Daniel T. Ferrera. He speculates that Jupiter-Saturn close approaches during a presidential election or inauguration year signal that the President is likely to die in office.
Supposedly, the 1840 GC foretold the death of William Henry Harrison from pneumonia, which he probably contracted during his inauguration in January 1841.
James Garfield and William McKinley were assassinated in the years after the conjunctions of 1880 and 1900. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after the GC of 1860, but it took almost three years for the planetary influence to bear tragic fruit.
The same goes for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His fatal conjunction happened during the election year of 1960. He was killed in 1963.
Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack over two years after his conjunction in 1920. Franklin Roosevelt’s fatal cerebral hemorrhage didn’t happen until August 12, 1945, even though his Great Conjunction occurred in 1940.
The pattern, such as it is, breaks down with the GC of 1980. Ronald Reagan was shot in the year after, but he survived the attempt to kill him.
The formula breaks down entirely with the election-year conjunction of 2000. George W. Bush is still hale and hearty at age 74.
If I were an astrologist, which I decidedly am not, I would be worried about Saturn and Jupiter’s latest family reunion. Father and son had a particularly pusillanimous relationship.
(Warning: The following story contains child eating, patricide, and other indignities that are frowned upon in today’s less permissive society.)
Saturn, the father, was an ancient Roman god who migrated to Italy from Greece, where he ruled under the name Cronus. He was the youngest son of Uranus, the god of heaven, and Gaia, Mother Earth.
His mother gave him a flint sickle, which he used to castrate his father, take his place in Heaven, and become ruler of the cosmos.
Armed with his trusty scythe, he taught humans the art of agriculture. The Greeks called that period the Golden Age because humans lived in peace and prosperity.
Saturn’s one flaw — and it’s a huge one — was his fear that one of his children would overthrow him the way he supplanted his father. To protect himself, he swallowed his children whole immediately after they were born.
As a result of some shrewd maneuvering by Saturn’s wife Rhea, Jupiter, Saturn’s final child, managed to escape Saturn’s dubious appetite. Eventually, after a stupendous war, Jupiter grew up to replace his father as ruler of the universe.
If all of this sounds ancient and irrelevant to our modern times, think again. Consider that this particular Great Conjunction occurs on the date of the Winter Solstice.
The Romans honored Saturn with a week-long festival that centered around the Winter Solstice.
The Saturnalia, as the Romans called it, was a period of joyous licentiousness and carrying on that still hangs on in our New Year’s Eve and Christmas celebrations.
In fact, Christmas is inextricably tied to a Great Conjunction. In 1603, the renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler observed the close approach of Jupiter and Saturn. He wondered if such an event might be the Christmas star mentioned in Matthew. He calculated that a Great Conjunction occurred during 7 BCE and speculated that such close conjunctions triggered the flareup of a star, an event called a nova.
Two matters work against his speculation. Modern calculations indicate that the conjunction wasn’t that close. Jupiter and Saturn got no closer than two full-moon diameters apart during their closest approach. Besides, conjunctions of tiny planets have absolutely nothing to do with the flareups of far-larger, far-more-distant, and far-more-energetic stars.
It would have been a great year to celebrate the Great Solstice Conjunction with other astro-aficionados, but fate in a very ungodly form has intervened.
I hope at least that you and your cohabiting loved ones will go outside and see Saturn and Jupiter, father and son, embrace on a lovely, star-filled night.
As you stare upward, remember that we are who we are because we have grown out of the ground cultivated for us by people who lived long ago.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.