The solar system’s two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, came within the planet’s kiss range in Monday night’s sky, an intimacy that will not occur again until 2080.
This “great interconnection,” as it is known to astronomers, occurred randomly during the winter solstice of those in the northern hemisphere and early summer in the global south.
The two planets were in fact more than 730 million kilometers apart. But because of their orientation toward Earth, they seemed closer than ever in almost 400 years.
Optimal “conjunction” took place at 1822 GMT.
The best viewing conditions on Monday were in clear skies and near the equator, while people in Western Europe and along much of Africa had to practice their vision 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 traveled into the desert west of Kuwait City to capture the event once in a lifetime.
Looking with a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars, the two gas giants were separated by no more than one-fifth of the full moon’s diameter.
But with the naked eye, they would merge into a “very brilliant” double plane, says Florent Deleflie from the Paris Observatory.
“Grand Conjunction refers to the period when two planets have relatively equal positions relative to Earth,” says Deleflie.
“With a small instrument – even a small pair of binoculars – people can see Jupiter’s equatorial band and its main satellites and Saturn’s rings.”
The last time Jupiter and Saturn reached this close was in 1623, but the weather conditions in regions where reunification could be seen blocked the view.
Visibility was apparently better the time before that during the Middle Ages, March 4, 1226 to be exact.
Jupiter, the larger planet, takes 12 years to rotate around the sun, while Saturn takes 29 years.
Every 20 years or so, they seem to come closer to each other for observers on earth.