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San Juan College Planetarium director says Jupiter-Saturn conjunction worth viewing

David Mayeux plans to offer virtual magnified views of event

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park on Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Va. The two planets are drawing closer to each other in the sky as they head toward a “great conjunction” on Dec. 21, when the two giant planets will appear 1/10th of 1 degree apart.
  • The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will reach its peak shortly after sunset on Dec. 21.
  • The two giant planets will be visible just above the horizon in the southwest, weather permitting.
  • Visit the San Juan College Planetarium Facebook page to attend a Zoom meeting offering virtual views of the event.

FARMINGTON — San Juan College Planetarium director David Mayeux says he can't really explain why he finds celestial events like the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction that will reach its peak on the evening of Dec. 21 so compelling.

He just knows he does. And he's pretty sure he's not alone in that feeling. Mayeux will host a Zoom meeting as the event happens using a new piece of technology he hopes will bring the celestial show up close and personal for his viewers. 

"Personally, I think there's something about the human psyche that goes back to meetings of that nature," he said. "Since ancient times, people have looked out for meetings of objects in the sky."

Regular watchers of the night sky likely have been tracking the movement of the two large gas planets toward each other for the past several weeks, but that phenomenon will reach its peak shortly after sunset on Dec. 21.

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Jupiter and Saturn, positioned low in the sky to the southwest, will appear remarkably close to each other from the perspective of Earth — just 1/10th of 1 degree. A viewer holding her or his hand out at arm's length will be able to cover both planets with the pinkie finger, according to NASA.gov.

While the orbit of both planets brings them into alignment in the sky approximately once every 20 years, NASA officials say this conjunction will appear to be remarkably close, even though the two planets actually will be hundreds of millions of miles apart. This conjunction will bring them closer together from Earth's perspective than they have been in almost 400 years, according to NASA, and a conjunction of this proximity hasn't occurred at night in nearly 800 years, making it an extremely rare prime-time viewing opportunity.

David Mayeux

The event is made even more unusual by the fact that it will take place during the winter solstice, that day each year when the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt from the sun, signifying the first day of winter. Mayeux acknowledged that likely carries some added significance for some folks, although he isn't one of them.

"I suppose so, although all it is is a remarkable coincidence," he said, explaining that he has seen material on the Internet from people speculating that the timing of the conjunction on the solstice is a harbinger of all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios, including the end of the Mayan calendar.

Mayeux doesn't have much patience with such ideas, but he's plenty excited about the event itself. Conjunctions are among his favorite celestial events, and he plans on marking the occasion by serving as the host of a publicly accessible Zoom meeting in which he hopes to be able to offer live magnified views of the event through some new technology.

Those interested in attending Mayeux's Zoom meeting should visit the San Juan College Planetarium Facebook page and click on the invitation link. He said he hopes to open the meeting at approximately 5:30 p.m. Dec. 21.

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Mayeux said he has obtained an eyepiece for his telescope that includes a USB port, allowing him to convey magnified images of the conjunction to those who log on to the Zoom meeting. He believes the two planets will be close enough together that they can be seen in the same field of view in his telescope, although he acknowledged on Dec. 18 he hadn't had a chance to try out the technology yet.

But if he can make it work, he said it would be very much worth watching.

"I've never seen two planets in the eyepiece of a telescope so close in the same field of view," he said.

Mayeux said the angular space between Jupiter and Saturn will be so small it will be roughly one-quarter of a lunar diameter.

"That's incredibly close," he said. "I'm really excited to see if I can capture it or not."

Those who would prefer to enjoy the experience in person likely will have the opportunity to do so, as the conjunction should be easily visible to the naked eye, barring cloud cover, he said. He encouraged those with access to a pair of binoculars to use them, explaining that while the magnification from that device isn't quite strong enough to provide a view of Saturn's rings, it should be good enough to allow viewers to see the moons of Jupiter and Saturn's moon Titan.

The experience with a pair of binoculars will be enhanced if the viewer is able to remain motionless, Mayeux said.

"Prop your elbows on the back of a chair or the trunk of a car," he advised. "And a camera tripod words best, although most people don't have access to that. The more you can steady your view, the better."

This screen shot from the computer planetarium program "Stellarium" shows the view through a telescope on Dec. 21, 2020, when planets Jupiter and Saturn appear in close proximity to one another in the southwestern evening sky. The two planets haven't appeared this close together since the 1600s. Also visible in a telescope view are Jupiter's four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto and Saturn's large moon Titan. Illustration Stellarium and Johnny Horne  for the Fayetteville Observer

Mayeux said he was so excited about watching the conjunction and testing his new viewer that he felt a bit like Doc Brown, the exuberant mad scientist character portrayed by Christopher Lloyd in the "Back to the Future" movies.

"I'd like to be able to convey this to the public," he said. "It's a fun thing to do before Christmas."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.