The 2020 Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is the closest conjunction of these giant planets since their conjunction in 1623.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Was this conjunction observed?
The Jupiter – Saturn conjunction of 1623 occurred in the wake of the invention of the telescope, so observing was in its infancy; yet, the sky was full of planetary activity. A partial lunar eclipse (April 15, 1623) was visible throughout the Americas and in Central Europe, where the moon was setting as the eclipse reached its 90% magnitude. Venus passed Jupiter and Saturn in late June and Mercury passed the planetary pair less than two weeks later, when the planets were about 22° east of the sun. With the inner planets in the vicinity of the impending Great Conjunction and Mars reaching opposition (July 4, 1623), surely sky watchers were observing the planets’ locations to test and revise their planetary motion equations.
By the time of the Great Conjunction on July 16, 1623, the planetary pair was less than 13° east of the sun. By Civil Twilight, the pair was near the horizon at mid-latitudes. Without optical help, the conjunction likely went unobserved, even for those with recently minted telescopes. Even then, the observer needed some luck to find the conjunction.
In later years, two British publications stated that the 1623 conjunction was not observed. In 1886, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society state that the February 8, 1683, Jupiter – Saturn conjunction was the first observed “since the invention of the telescope” and that the 1623 passing went unobserved. The same statement was written in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association in 1897. Perhaps the conjunction was observed without optical aid and recorded from more southerly latitudes, when the planets were higher in the sky.
Did the two British publications make the statements out of parochialism, rather than from factual observations made around Europe regarding the first Great Conjunction observed with a telescope, or was this the first time that the conjunction fit into an eyepiece since the telescope’s invention? The February 24, 1643, conjunction was visible in the western sky during mid-twilight as well as the October 16, 1663, conjunction. At the second conjunction the planets were about 10° up in the southwest at one hour after sunset. However, at both conjunctions, the planets were nearly 1° apart. At the 1683 conjunction, the planets were close, about 0.2° apart, twice the separation of the upcoming event. While the two previous conjunctions were visible to the naked eye and individually in a telescopic eyepiece, the 1683 conjunction was the first observed with both planets simultaneously in an eyepiece. With a separation of 0.1°, the 1623 conjunction would have fit into telescopes eyepieces of that generation, but certainly those early telescopes were unwieldy to steer and hold steady, and the telescope operator needed some persistence during the days preceding the conjunction to follow the converging planets into bright twilight while they had sufficient altitude to observe them. So, while the British publications are accurate about viewing the planets simultaneously through a telescope, the two preceding conjunctions were visible to the unaided eye and individually through a telescope, and this does not speak to the issue as whether the 1623 conjunction when unobserved across all of humanity.
In recent times, Great Conjunctions occurred February 18, 1961; followed by a triple conjunction of the two planets in 1980-81; and the last occurred May 30, 2000, although this was difficult to observe.
Read the Great Conjunction of 2020 Article.