The Winter Solstice arrives on Monday, Dec. 21. That means it is the shortest day of the year and, obviously, the longest night. In Laramie the Winter Solstice arrives at 3:02 a.m. That’s the precise time when the Sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn. The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. Regardless of what the weather outside is doing, the solstice marks the official start of winter.
For Laramie, on Monday the sun sets at 4:34 p.m. and rises the next morning at 7:21 a.m. That means we’ll have 8 hours and 56 minutes of day and 15 hours and 4 minutes of night. For those living farther north, the day is shorter, and the night is longer. In the extreme north, their daylight time is zero; they get 24 hours of night.
As cold and dark as that sounds, there’s a positive side. It means summer is on the way as, little by little and minute by minute, our days get longer. That continues until we reach the longest day of the year, and the shortest night, at the Summer Solstice on June 20, 2021.
There’s another good side to all that dark: it means you don’t have to stay up late or get up super early to ogle the night sky. While such stargazing can get nippy, don the down coat, wool hat, and insulated gloves and head outside. Even as early as 5 p.m., there’s something to see.
There’s a special treat accompanying the Winter Solstice this year. For all the animosity we might have for 2020 there is one bright spot. And bright it will be.
It is the conjunction – the coming together – of Jupiter and Saturn. They are the fifth and sixth planets, respectively, from the Sun, and the two largest planets of our solar system.
Coincidentally, this event, what astronomers call the Great Conjunction of 2020, occurs with the Winter Solstice.
According to an article in the online magazine “Astronomy” by Eric Betz, during the event, as viewed from Earth the two planets will sit just 0.1 degrees apart, or a mere one-fifth the width of the Moon.
Betz said the last time Jupiter and Saturn were this close together, and away from the Sun so they could be seen, was in 1226 A.D. That was a time, as Betz described it, when Genghis Khan was conquering large swaths of Asia, and Europe was still generations away from the Renaissance.
On Don Day Jr’s DayWeather Podcast, he recently offered suggestions for seeing this conjunction — what some are referring to as the Christmas Star.
“Don’t wait until Monday night to look for the planets for the first time,” Day said. “Check them out ahead of time so you’ll know where to look.”
The two planets rise to the southwest but remain low on the horizon. From when it’s dark enough to see them, probably around 5 p.m., they remain visible for one to two hours. That means that by around 7 p.m., the show is over.
The big event is the evening of Dec. 21, although the planets will be quite close both before and after that date.
You won’t need binoculars or a telescope, but with either of those you might be able to zoom in and watch Juniper’s four moons or look at Saturn and its magnificent rings.
Betz explains that Jupiter appears brighter because it’s bigger and closer than Saturn. Jupiter sits just over half a billion miles away, while Saturn is roughly double that distance. They look close together due to the view being down the barrel of our solar system.
The good news is that the forecast looks good for Laramie viewing. We should have clear skies with the temperature about 30 degrees, which isn’t all that bad for us Wyoming folk. There will be a bit of a breeze around 12 mph.
While getting away from city lights intensifies the viewing experience as other stars become more visible, the two planets are so bright you don’t necessarily need to go to a dark site.
Such a conjunction between these two planets occurs about every 20 years, but they’re not all easy to see when they occur too close to the Sun.
According to Betz, humanity won’t have to wait quite as long to see a repeat performance of these two planets. Another Great Conjunction will be visible in 2080. Of course, many of us alive today won’t be around then, so it is best to get out and ogle the planets this time around.