Great Conjunctions

Jupiter and Saturn swing by the moon this week ahead of a ...

A Great Conjunction is when Jupiter and Saturn reach the closest point in their orbit, and appear mere degrees apart, as one bright star from Earth. 21 December 2020 will be the first Great Conjunction in 400 years and the closest since 1226. The next will be in 2080.

Jupiter and Saturn are the two largest planets in our solar system. Both are gas giants over nine times the diameter of Earth and the furthest planets from Earth we can see with the naked eye. 

Seeing Uranus, Neptune or Pluto requires a telescope. Jupiter takes 12 earth-years to orbit the sun, Saturn takes 30. During the Great Conjunction, they appear 1° apart with a naked eye and 5° with a telescope.

The Great Conjunction of 2020 will take place on the Winter/Summer Solstice and be best visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The planets will appear in the southwest, with Saturn being above/left of Jupiter in the Northern Hemisphere and below/right in the Southern. With binoculars, you can see Jupiter’s four Galilean moons – Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io. With a telescope, you can catch all 75 of its moons and the ‘Great Red Spot’. The conjunction will be visible one hour after sunset.

We know of older conjunctions from astronomical records left by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and early modern Europeans. Many, however, were either too shrouded or close to the sun to be visible from Earth.

 Largest visible recorded Great Conjunctions:

  • 1st March 1793 BC – 0.02°, the closest recorded conjunction.
  • 6 March 372 – 0.03°
  • 6 March 372, 0.1°
  • 13 September 709 – 0.1°
  • 4 March 1226 – 0.03°
  • 25 August 1523 – 0.1°
  • 16 July 1623 – 0.08°
  • 21 December 2020 – 0.01°

Polish astronomers observed the Great Conjunction of 1523 from the Krakow Academy and used it to prove Copernicus’s heliocentric model. 

The last Great Conjunction was in 1623, in the early days of the telescope. Jupiter and Saturn appeared 0.08° apart. 2020’s conjunction will be even closer, and the near since 1226 when the hordes of Genghis Khan were ravaging Asia and Saint Francis was in the last year of his life.

Johannes Keppler, the famed German astronomer, suggested in 1614 that the (minor) conjunction of 7 BC was the Star of Bethlehem attested in the Bible. Modern scholarship suggests it is most likely the ‘Star’ was an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon around 14 April 6 BC, which would have appeared in the west of Judah and thus led the Three Wise Men from the east. 

Sources: Astrtonomy, News Scientist, Wikipedia

See Also:

The Queen’s Gambit

'The Queen's Gambit' Trailer: Anya Taylor-Joy's Netflix ...

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is a period drama miniseries about a female chess prodigy. Set in the 1960s, it follows Beth Harmon from her beginnings as a penniless orphan to international grandmaster. The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book by the same name. It released on Netflix in November 2020. Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch) stars, Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) and Allan Scott (Castaway) write and direct.

The Queen’s Gambit is a chess opening where white sacrifices their queen’s pawn to gain control of the centre. Beth employs both the gambit and the ‘Sicilian Defense’ throughout the series.

When her mother dies, eight-year-old Beth Harmon of Lexington, Kentucky transfers to the Methuen Home for Christian Girls. There she picks up a habit for tranquillisers and learns to play chess under the rough but loveable janitor Mr Schaibel. As a teenager Beth plays in local tournaments and rapidly rises through the ranks, becoming state champion by the second episode. Despite her success, loneliness and substance abuse beset her. 

Beth is a fictional character. There has never been a female world champion and, to this day, 99 of the world’s top 100 players are male. The Queen’s Gambit presents a heroine who challenges the norm and excels in a male-dominated field. 

Her career resembles Bobby Fischer, an American child prodigy who unseated the Russian world champion Lassky in 1973, 18th-century master Charles Morphy and modern female champion Judit Polgar.

You don’t need to be a chess fan to enjoy this show. Its strength lies in its ability to build emotional suspense through games on a board and balance triumph with despair. Without seeing every move, we can tell the way a game’s course through body language. Chess theory is still a common topic, however, and will delight anyone with even the slightest interest in the game. In the US, chessboard sales went up 87% and books about chess 603%. Chess.com saw 2.5 million registrations the week after Queen’s Gambit’s release. I was one of them.

 The chess community praised the show’s portrayal of the game. Former world champion Gary Kasparov was a consultant.

The Queen’s Gambit makes chess sexy. Beth Harmon is alluring and sympathetic and her fashion-sense enticing Locations like Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow are gorgeously portrayed. Though Beth is central, a supporting cast of characters includes her orphan friend Jolene, and dorky yet good-hearted Harry Beltik and the cocky Benny Watts. Queen’s Gambit popularity spread rapidly through word of mouth; by December, it was Netflix’s most popular show. The New Yorker called it ‘the most satisfying show on television.’ It will likely scoop Emmys in February.

Sources: Bangkok Post, CNN