In the midst of a difficult year, the perfect sign of hope will come to the Manitoba sky just in time for Christmas.
On December 21 the planets Saturn and Jupiter will align, appearing to form one large star. In astronomy, when two planets align, it is called a conjunction, and Jupiter and Saturn form a conjunction about every 20 years. However, this year will be the first time the two planets have come this close in 800 years.
"These things happen so seldom," says Gord Tulloch, the Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Winnipeg Centre. Tulloch says that typically the conjunction of the two planets is around 10 degrees of separation. For comparison, the width of a full moon takes up about five degrees in the sky. Currently, the two planets are about half a degree apart, and they'll continue to move closer until they appear to merge on the evening of the winter solstice.
Tulloch says it won't take much to see the event in full view, even with the naked eye. The big worry, he says, is whether there will be a cloudy sky blocking the view.
If the sky is clear, Tulloch says the planets will be low in the southwest sky. "You don't want to wait too long," after sunset he says, as the planets will dip below the horizon fairly quick. "The sun will go down at about 4:30 pm on the 21st and the planets go down about 6:50 pm." Around 5:00-5:30 is a good time to view the event.
Tulloch also points out that you can view the two planets every evening, and watch as they get closer and closer. They will also continue to get lower in the sky each evening.
If you use binoculars or a telescope, you will also be able to see the moons of the two planets, as well as the rings of Saturn. Tulloch suggests using a tripod for binoculars to help steady the view.
The RASC Winnipeg Centre will also be live-streaming the event on their Facebook page.
Are the two planets really the Christmas Star? 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler gave a few theories of what the Christmas Star may have been. Among those theories was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
While there was no event quite like this one around the time of Christ's birth, there were three conjunctions.
The two planets weren't close enough to appear as one at the time, however, such an event could have still held religious or astrological significance.
It's also been suggested that the Christmas Star may have been a supernova explosion or a comet. As well, another theory is that it was the conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Venus, and the bright star Regulus.