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Family Fun: Winter solstice aligns with planetary conjunction

The moon sets behind the steeple of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Wednesday night in Columbia, Mo. On Monday evening, Saturn and Jupiter's conjunction will be the closest in 800 years, prompting some to call their combined brightness the "Christmas star."  (Brian W. Kratzer/Missourian/AP)
The moon sets behind the steeple of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Wednesday night in Columbia, Mo. On Monday evening, Saturn and Jupiter's conjunction will be the closest in 800 years, prompting some to call their combined brightness the "Christmas star." (Brian W. Kratzer/Missourian/AP)

The stars are aligned. Well, actually, it’s the planets.

On Monday, Jupiter and Saturn will be as close together – as seen from Earth – as they’ve been in centuries.

“They’ll be so close together, it’ll be hard to tell them apart,” said John Whitmer, astronomy instructor at Spokane Falls Community College.

And the timing is serendipitous. Not only is it the winter solstice, but it’s also just a few days before Christmas. While there’s lots of debate, a planetary conjunction is one of the leading guesses as to what created the Christmas star, Whitmer said.

Because of their different orbits, Saturn and Jupiter look close every 20 years – though they’re still hundreds of millions of miles apart – but not usually this close. The last time they were this close was in 1623.

To see the two planets, look low on the southwest horizon just after sunset, which is at 4 p.m. The planets will set at about 6:30 p.m. but likely won’t be visible after 6.

“If you’ve got good eyesight, it’ll probably look like an oblong star,” Whitmer said. With binoculars, “it’ll be really pretty,” you’ll be able to see two distinct planets, though very close.

With a telescope, you’ll be able to see both planets at the same time.

“That really is the prize,” Whitmer said. “To be able to see both objects, the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn – and obviously the planets they belong to – in the same view through the eye piece.”

If it’s cloudy, don’t worry. The planets will continue to be close for a few days.

While the conjunction is a rare event, it’s worth marking the solstice, too.

The December solstice marks the day that the Northern Hemisphere is tilted most directly away from the sun. That means it’s the day with the shortest amount of daylight.

“It’s the turning point from when the days are getting shorter to when the days are getting longer,” Whitmer said.

The changing seasons are caused by Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt. The tilt stays the same as Earth orbits the sun, but it’s orientation to the sun changes.

So whether a season is cold or hot, darker or lighter, is not about Earth’s distance to the sun. “It’s all about the tilt because the tilt causes the angle of the sun to change,” he said.

As far as making observations about the solstice, “it’s hard to just go out on that day and really notice anything or make any realizations,” Whitmer said.

Instead, he said to start noticing the position of the sun from day to day and week to week.

“The sun sets in a very different place in the winter vs. the summer,” he said.

Right now, it’s setting in the southwest; in summertime, it will set in the northwest. “It’s really a pretty big difference over the course of the year,” he said. And, that’s all due to the tilt.

So, when it’s clear, notice where it sets. Then, see how that position has changed in a week or a month. “It takes a little time to really appreciate the difference,” Whitmer said.

And it doesn’t have to be the sunset. You could also watch the sunrise or the position of the sun at noon.

People have been watching the movement of the sun for millennia, Whitmer said.

“A lot of the first astronomy that we see evidence of in the ancient cultures is figuring out when the solstices and equinoxes occur and building monuments to them,” he said.

And though Whitmer doesn’t do anything special to celebrate the solstice, he always looks forward to it and the longer days.

“It’s a day of celebration because the daylight is coming back, and we can look forward to happier times.”

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