The meeting of the solar system’s biggest planets will be visible from just about anywhere on Earth. This conjunction coincides with the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, but it is special for another reason, too: The last time anyone on Earth experienced such a sight was 800 years ago.
Reading about tonight’s event—a cosmic conjunction to end this year, of all years—and jumping to making meaning out of it might be tempting. That tendency has sharpened for many of us in 2020, and when unusual news has come out, especially anything related to the cosmos, we’ve treated it as a reflection of these months that sometimes seemed to exist out of time. The discovery of a black hole near Earth back in May seemed like some kind of sign. So did that monolith in Utah that seemed to come out of nowhere. The rareness of this conjunction will likely prompt some similar shivers.
Because while we certainly know a lot more about Jupiter and Saturn today than anyone did 800 years ago, the desire to draw meaning from celestial bodies and apply it to earthly matters hasn’t disappeared. The instinct is hardwired; it’s why we see animals in the shapes of cumulus clouds, faces in the craters on the moon—and meaning in two bright planets in the night sky. In moments of crisis and anxiety, the urge to find explanations everywhere is particularly strong. It’s one reason that astrology has seen such a resurgence among Millennials in the past decade; as my colleague Julie Beck has written, people tend to turn to the zodiac in times of stress. “We’re always trying to look for meaning, and that’s something that doesn’t change, whether we’re talking about the 12th century or the 21st century,” Olomi said.
Tonight, he will go outside, not long after sunset, to find the planets—so close they seem to be nearly touching—before they fade later in the night. “As Earth turns and those planets get lower in the sky, they’ll be more difficult to see,” Hunt said, especially if buildings or trees block your horizon. But these conjunctions are some of the most accessible in all of astronomy. For many of the most dramatic shows in space, people have to be in the right place at the right time—like last week’s solar eclipse, which cast a shadow on Chile and Argentina. This summer, when a comet, one of the brightest in decades, whizzed past Earth, residents of the Northern Hemisphere got the best view. Even then, many needed binoculars to spot the comet, which won’t appear again for another 6,800 years.
This year’s rare planetary alignment may not be a harbinger from the heavens, but it is a pleasant distraction. The conjunction won’t resemble a biblical, blazing star, as some news reports have suggested, but the sight might provide a little dose of awe nonetheless. And the experience of awe, psychology research has shown, can actually prompt feelings of connectedness with other people—something this year could use, conjunction or not. Tomorrow, Jupiter and Saturn will start moving away from each other, tracing their own paths through the solar system. They will hover lower in the sky, and by early next year, vanish into the sun’s glare.