All sorts of Lunar and Solar eclipses and so much related to them this year and to polish them all with came last night, the year-end treat after centuries.
What has become known as the “Christmas Star” or “Star of Bethlehem” – actually an especially bright planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – was visible in the night sky on Dec. 21, according to NASA scientists.
“You can imagine the solar system to be a racetrack, with each of the planets as a runner in their own lane and the Earth toward the center of the stadium,” said an expert astronomer in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters from the city of The White House. “From our vantage point, we’ll be able to be to see Jupiter on the inside lane, approaching Saturn all month and finally overtaking it on December 21.”
On Dec. 21, the two planets appeared so close that a small finger, at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky, NASA said. In space, however, the two planets remain hundreds of millions of miles apart.
It’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter (the gaseous and dust planets) occurred at night.
Best ways to see the conjunction
The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking towards the SouthWest just after sunset.
For best viewing, NASA.gov suggests:
Finding a spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, such as a field or park. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, so they can be seen even from most cities.
An hour after sunset, look towards the SouthWestern sky. Jupiter will look like a bright star and be easily visible.
Saturn will be slightly fainter and will appear slightly above and to the left of Jupiter until Dec. 21, when Jupiter will overtake it and they will reverse positions in the sky.
The planets can be seen with the unaided eye, but if you have binoculars or a small telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four large moons orbiting the giant planet.
The 2020 ‘Great Conjunction’ of Saturn and Jupiter is the closest these planets will appear in the sky since 1623 – just after Galileo first observed them with his telescope. They are easy to see without special equipment, and can be photographed easily on DSLR cameras and many cell phone cameras. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when photographing the sky during December.
Jupiter and Saturn will appear brighter than nearly every star. They can be seen easily from large cities, and dark sites.
Jupiter and Saturn are bright enough that you don’t necessarily need to go to a dark site to take compelling photos of them. If you have a clear view toward the southwest, you have the chance to take some great photos.
Think about composition. Jupiter and Saturn will just appear as points of light. To make your photo more interesting, try to frame the planets with something – the silhouette of a tree, an outdoor landscape, the arch of a building, or even a neon sign.
Experiment with both wide-angle and telephoto shots. In early December, the two planets will be about 2 degrees apart, and will get progressively close toward December 21. In order to show them clearly in your photos, you might use a wide-angle composition early in December, and zoom in later in the month as they get closer.
Be sure to go outside on a few different nights, and see how their separation changes.
Using a tripod will help you hold your camera steady while taking longer exposures. If you don’t have a tripod, brace your camera against something – a tree, a fence, or a car can all serve as a tripod for a several-second exposure.
These planets are visible in early evening, and you’ll have about 1-2 hours from when they are visible, to when they set. The color and intensity of the sky changes during that time. Stay out for an hour or more, and try to capture shots with both the bright colors of sunset, and the darkness of the oncoming night. A photo from the same location can look completely different just an hour later!
The crescent moon will pass near Jupiter and Saturn a few days before the conjunction. Take advantage of it in your composition!
Tips if using a cell phone camera
Jupiter and Saturn will be bright enough to detect in many cell phone cameras. You won’t see additional detail by zooming in, but you can frame Jupiter and Saturn creatively.
Some recent cell phones have a ‘night mode,’ which will automatically stabilize a long-exposure, even without using a tripod. This can be great for capturing the dark foreground of your photo. Some phones will let you use ‘night mode’ on exposures up to 30 seconds, if you also use a tripod.
Many cell phones have a wide-angle lens. Try using this to place a subject in the foreground, with Jupiter and Saturn above them.
At the time of conjunction on December 21, Jupiter and Saturn may be too close to separate clearly in your photos. Images taken a few days before or after the conjunction may show them more clearly.
Tips if using a DSLR camera
Set your focus to Infinity (Manual Focus mode), so the planets will be sharp. Set your aperture wide open, to let in the maximum amount of light.
If you have a tripod, it will help you take long exposures. If not, you can still take some great pictures with a short shutter speed (< 1/4 second). If your camera or lens has an image stabilizer, be sure it is turned on.
If your photos show that the camera is not steady, shorten your shutter speed. You can also use a photographers’ trick to get a sharp photo when hand-holding: set up your camera to take multiple exposures, then hold the shutter button to take a series of photos. While some will be blurry due to camera shake, you may find a few that are sharp.
If you use a 200 mm telephoto lens, you should be able to see Jupiter’s four bright moons in a short exposure. Saturn’s rings will usually need a longer lens or a telescope in order to resolve clearly.
To capture Jupiter and Saturn as sharp ‘points’ while using a tripod, use a shutter speed of up to a few seconds. More than this and the Earth’s rotation will smear out the planets and stars. If you are using a wide-angle lens, you can use a longer exposure.