In a celestial phenomenon not seen in 397 years, Jupiter and Saturn, from the perspective of observers on Earth, align closely in an intimacy that will not occur again until 2080.

A picture taken on December 21, 2020, in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 km west of Kuwait City, shows the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
A picture taken on December 21, 2020, in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 km west of Kuwait City, shows the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. (AFP)

The solar system's two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, have come within the planetary kissing range, an intimacy that will not occur again until 2080.

The optimal "conjunction" took place at 1822 GMT on Monday.

This "great conjunction", as it is known to astronomers, occurred fortuitously on the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of summer in the global south.

The two planets were, in fact, more than 730 million kilometres apart. But because of their alignment in relation to Earth, they appeared to be closer to each other than at any time in almost 400 years.

Viewing conditions

The best viewing conditions were in clear skies and close to the Equator, while people in Western Europe and along a vast swathe of Africa had to train their sight to the southwest.

But hundreds of space fans also gathered in Kolkata to watch – through a telescope at a technology museum in the city, or from surrounding rooftops and open areas.

And in Kuwait, astrophotographers travelled into the desert west of Kuwait City to capture the once-in-a-lifetime event.

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Kuwaiti astrophotographers follow the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 kms west of Kuwait City, on December 21, 2020.
Kuwaiti astrophotographers follow the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 kms west of Kuwait City, on December 21, 2020. (AFP)

'Highly luminous' double planet

Looking with a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars, the two gas giants were separated by no more than a fifth of the diametre of a full moon.

But with the naked eye, they would merge into a "highly luminous" double planet, said Florent Deleflie from the Paris Observatory.

"The Grand Conjunction refers to the period when two planets have relatively similar positions in relation to Earth," said Deleflie.

"With a small instrument – even a small pair of binoculars – people can see Jupiter's equatorial bands and its main satellites and Saturn's rings."

Jupiter (below) and Saturn (above) are pictured on the sky during the closest visible conjunction of them in 400 years, in La Linea de la Concepcion, southern Spain, on December 21, 2020.
Jupiter (below) and Saturn (above) are pictured on the sky during the closest visible conjunction of them in 400 years, in La Linea de la Concepcion, southern Spain, on December 21, 2020. (Reuters)
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are framed between the twin steeples of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are framed between the twin steeples of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP)

Last and next reunions 

The last time Jupiter and Saturn nuzzled up this close was in 1623, but weather conditions in regions where the reunion could be seen blocked the view.

Visibility was apparently better the time before that during the Middle Ages, on March 4, 1226, to be precise.

Jupiter, which is the larger planet, takes 12 years to revolve around the sun, while Saturn takes 29 years.

Every 20 years or so, they appear to observers on Earth to come closer to each other.

The next Great Conjunction between the two planets – though not nearly as close together – comes in November 2040. A closer alignment similar to Monday’s will be in March 2080, with the following close conjunction 337 years later in August 2417.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies