Conjunction Function

Author’s note — This was supposed to have been posted on 13 December, a week before the conjunction, but then Arecibo happened. That topic took precedence and two parts. Please pretend you’re reading this before 21 December.

hi, Sy. taking orders for tonite’s delivery. u want pizza? calzone?

Hi, Eddie. How about a veggie stromboli?

sure, no problem. @ your office about 6:45, OK?

That’ll be good. See you then.

btw, question for you about the jupiter-saturn thing coming up

The conjunction? Sure. We can talk when you get here.

<bah-dap-dap> “C’mon in, Eddie, the door’s open.”

“Hiya, Sy. Here’s your stromboli. Sorry I’m a little late. I figured we’d be talking so I took care of my other customers first. I wrapped it real good, is it still hot enough?”

<tasting pause> “Perfect, Eddie. So what’s your question?”

“OK, I been reading on the internet about how Jupiter and Saturn are gonna collide on December 21 and we’re all gonna die so don’t bother about Christmas. But I also read that this happened before like 800 years ago and we’re still here so the ‘all gonna die‘ part don’t sound right.”

“Good thinking. We’re not going to die, they’re not going to collide, and Great Conjunctions happen way more often than every 800 years. You said you’d be asking about that so I built a couple of diagrams using planet positions I pulled from NASA’s slick Eyes on The Solar System app. OK, let’s start with this south‑facing view of the system as it was a year ago.”

Planetary positions, 15 Dec 2019

“Pretty, kinda, but what’s it mean?”

“That orange dot in the center is the Sun. The circles are planet orbits, and the colored dots show the position of each planet. All the planets and most of their moons go counterclockwise when viewed from Solar north — that’s what the little arrows show.”

“I thought Jupiter was way bigger than Earth.”

“It is. There’s no way you can get planet distances and planet sizes to scale in the same diagram. Distances are too big and even Jupiter’s too small. These distances are about right, but all the dots are just markers.”

“Funny, Sy — you dropped Jupiter half-way between Earth and Saturn.”

“That’s where it is. The distance between each pair of orbits is almost exactly 4½ times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Of course, the distance between the planets themselves depends on where each one is in its orbit and that changes all the time. Earth flies along its path three times faster than Saturn goes. Last December, Earth was 186 million miles further away from Saturn than it was in July.”

“Those dotted lines are sight-lines? That picture says that last December we had a clear view of Saturn but Earth and Jupiter were playing peek-a-boo around the Sun.”

“Exactly, and what a great lead‑in to my second diagram, calculated for next Monday.”

Planetary positions, 21 Dec 2020

“The two sight-lines overlap. They’ll look like just one planet, sorta. So that’s what all the fuss is about? They’re still that huge distance away from each other, not close to us at all.”

“Overlap’s a good word, though the official term is conjunction. The only things close together are images as seen from Earth. That last qualifier is important. What you see depends on where you stand. Our Curiosity rover on Mars won’t see a Great Conjunction like this for another month, on 31 Jan 2021.”

“What makes it a Great Conjunction? Is it brighter or something?”

“In a way. In principle you can have a conjunction of any two visible astronomical bodies. The phrase Great Conjunction only applies to Jupiter‑Saturn events. Of the classical planets Jupiter and Saturn are the slowest‑moving so their conjunction happens least often. They’re also the biggest and reflect more sunlight than Mercury or Mars so, yeah, their conjunctions tend to be especially bright.”

“But you said it happens a lot.”

“About every 20 years. You’re thinking about that 800‑year‑old event. That was the last time the two images were so close, less than a tenth of a degree apart.”

“So anyhow, we’re not all gonna die. Guess I’ll go Christmas shopping after all.”

“You do that, but shop local, OK?”

“That’s my motto now.”

~~ Rich Olcott