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.
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.
Look out at the night sky 👀 Seeing double? Don't worry, you're not alone!— Google Doodles (@GoogleDoodles) December 21, 2020
For the 1st time in 800 yrs, Jupiter & Saturn will be so visibly close, they'll form a double planet! 🪐🔭
See this once-in-a-lifetime Great Conjunction with #GoogleDoodle → https://t.co/B2fd2qqUac pic.twitter.com/YgPBXmz7Bn
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.
'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."
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.