Escondido, CA

Do you see what I see? This Christmas the planets align

About two thousand years ago the Wise Men from the East journeyed to Jerusalem seeking the New Born King, guided by the light in the sky that we have come to know as the Star of Bethlehem.

On December 21, four days before Christmas— although probably at a different time of year than when the birth of Christ actually occurred—Jupiter and Saturn will so closely align that the effect will be like that of a new star.

This will be the first time that such a close alignment has occurred since March 4, 1226, during the High Middle Ages.

You can expect to see local San Diego County residents looking for places to look at this modern-day reminder of ancient days, and perhaps the best place to do that in North County will be on Palomar Mountain. Obviously, a location that was chosen  80 years ago because of its great weather and even greater “seeing” would be a great place to look at the phenomenon.

Forbes has written that when the planets align as they did 800 years ago they will look like a “double planet” and provide a considerable amount of illumination. 

According to astronomer Patrick Hartigan of Rice University, quoted by Forbes: “Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to be to one another. 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.”

Some historians have speculated that the Star of Bethlehem was created by an even more spectacular alignment, of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus.

Although a drive up the winding S-7 will provide you will several lookouts and turnouts along the way, you don’t actually need to get in your car at all. You can see the double planet from anywhere.

According to Forbes:  “The planets will appear low in the western sky for about an hour after sunset as viewed from the northern hemisphere, and though they’ll be closest on December 21, you can look each evening that week. Although the sight will be sinking towards the horizon, it will be bright enough to be viewed in at twilight. All you need is an unobstructed view to the southwest, and to look to the southwest from about 45 minutes after sunset where you are,” Forbes states.

Bonnie Phelps of Palomar Mountain News interviewed the Mountain’s resident scientist and astronomy expert Mike Pique for his thoughts about whether Palomar would be a good place to watch the two planets. 

Pique’s reply was “Jupiter and Saturn, yes for sure. Remember when we were out looking for the comet during the summer? Waiting for the comet, we first saw Jupiter, then Saturn rise in the southeast.  They were about five “fingers” (at arm’s length) apart then.  By September I measured three fingers.  I’m trying not to ‘read’ articles about the date of closest approach, just so I can continue in eager suspense.  One of my astrophoto friends, now in Alaska, has been building a special camera adapter to take pictures.  I do point out that  Saturn is much dimmer than Jupiter, as you can see if you look the next time we have a clear night – what a surprise to wake up this morning to overcast.  So I do not expect any dramatic brightening.  It’s mostly the predictable but not-often event that’s fun, and with a good bit of history-of-science aspects to it.  Newton famously tried to calculate the effect of Jupiter’s gravity on Saturn’s position, unsuccessfully, 300 years ago.  And these are the two largest planets we have!”

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