Every 20 years or so, the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn meet. This rare conjunction has long been associated with weird events. We’ll get to all that in a moment.
We can get a visual preview the next clear night: Just look around the sky at 10 p.m. The brightest star is the planet Jupiter, in the southwest. Saturn stands low in the east as the third-brightest star. If you’re in doubt, point any telescope in the best telescopes under $500 category its way and you’ll be astonished at the rings.
The two giant worlds will draw closer the next few years. They will meet on the first day of winter in 2020. This Solstice conjunction will be the most spectacular meeting of planets in our lives. The two will be so close to each other, they’ll merge into a single ball – at least for those with marginal vision. Through a telescope, they’ll fit into the same field of view, separated by just one-sixth the width of the Moon.
Nothing short of spectacular. We’ve never seen it in our lives. (In case you wonder if Jupiter can ever actually eclipse Saturn by passing directly in front of it: Yes, it can happen. Although there have been no such occultations in the 5,000-year period of 1,000 to 6,000 AD, it will next happen in 7541.)
These meetings of Jupiter and Saturn, called “Great Conjunctions,” usually happen in years divisible by 20 – and always in the constellation of Taurus, Virgo or Capricornus, although sometimes on the boundary of some adjacent constellation, which is why the Virgo conjunctions are sometimes listed as Libra. (Also, one mustn’t confuse the irregularly sized actual constellations with the imaginary, evenly spaced astrological signs.) The Great Conjunctions in Taurus, every 60 years, find the planets very high up, and thus particularly noteworthy. We last saw that in 2000. The next are in 2060 and 2120.
Much has been made of the fact that several presidents who were elected during a year of a Great Conjunction died in office. Since that topic of coincidences is so popular, let’s look at a few astronomical ones I’ve never previously mentioned.
Earth’s radius is 3,960 miles, while the Moon spans 1,080 miles from its surface to its center. Their combined radii are 5,040 miles. Well, this happens to be the number of minutes in a week. It’s also equal to 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 – which, incidentally, also equals 7 x 8 x 9 x 10.
More? Well, the orbital periods of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are 30,000 days, 60,000 days and 90,000 days. Okay, this was after rounding off; but still, the three planets orbit the Sun in a 1:2:3 ratio, if you allow an accuracy of 99.8 percent.
You can keep going with numerical stuff like this, or finding anagrams of body parts (Earth’s letters spell “heart,” while Mars is “arms”) or ponder why every other planet contains the letter “U.” It’s important to know when to stop.