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Two planets come together for once-in-a-lifetime view

The rare planetary phenomenon was visible in Ellis County with the naked eye as well as with telescopes hosted by Fort Hays State University Physics Department and the Astronomy Club

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Stargazers were on the levee by Fort Hays State University to observe the rare and much anticipated conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on Monday evening.

While stargazing on the levee behind Fort Hays State University on Monday evening, Joan Crull, of Hays, admitted she doesn’t know a lot about astronomy.

But on Monday, officially the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, Crull was there to observe with a handful of others at the FHSU observation event the rare conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn.

“This is a wonderful blue clear sky to see it,” said Crull, who teaches music at Hays High School. She and her husband, Terry Crull, FHSU’s chorale director, were there with their daughter, Elise Crull, who was visiting from New York City, where she teaches philosophy at City College.

“Since I’ve lived in New York City, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen skies that were so big and so clear,” Crull said. “It’s a real treat.”

There were clouds in the southwest earlier, said Paul Adams, FHSU physics professor and a co-sponsor of the Astronomy Club with physics professor Jack Maseberg.

“I was worried earlier today, with the clouds, and I thought ‘Oh, we’re going to lose it,’ ” said Adams, leading the observation party. “But we’re good.”

Whether with the naked eye or one of two telescopes on hand, the enthusiastic sky watchers Monday evening were seeing a rare astronomical event.

“Right now you’re looking at Jupiter and Saturn. The bright light is Jupiter, and do you see that little light? That’s Jupiter, and that’s Saturn,” said Adams, guiding an observer using the telescope. “Saturn is down below, and if you look at Saturn you should be able to see rings around it. And the little pin pricks of light around them, those are the moons of Jupiter.”

The phenomenon, visible around the world, is being called the Christmas star this year. It doesn’t come around too often in a lifetime.

“What makes this a special event is Jupiter and Saturn are both moving around the sun, all the time, just like we are, and Jupiter does it in about 12 years and Saturn in about 27 years, so it’s like runners on a track,” Adams said.

“If you’ve ever watched track runners, the inner runners will go faster around and they’ll eventually lap the outer runners,” he said. “That’s what’s happening tonight. So in about 20 years they’ll actually come back and lap, like tonight.”

In actuality, it’s been about hundreds of years since they’ve been visibly as close as they were Monday evening from Earth’s view, Adams said.

“From our view, they’re almost on top of each other,” he said. “Now in 20 years they’ll come back together, but they’ll be further apart, which is very beautiful. And in 2000, the last time we had them in close proximity, it was still very beautiful, but not this close. This is what’s special about tonight.”

While it’s been named the Christmas star, that’s only because it’s happening this week of Christmas, Adams said.

“This probably did not occur at the time of the Bethlehem star,” Adams said. “There are lots of astronomical theories, but this isn’t it.”

Next time it comes around in 20 years, it will be in May, the same as it was in 2000, the last time Adams saw it.

On Monday, every few minutes, Adams adjusted the telescope, turning it to keep following the planets, countering the Earth’s rotation. “It’s gotten dark enough, you can see four moons,” he said of Jupiter.

Despite the chilly evening, Armando Arozco and Marisa Johnson, both from Hays, were taking in the event.

“We’re alumni and we’re just interested,” Johnson said. “I was thinking we need some hot chocolate.”

Arozco, Johnson and others viewing the phenomenon Monday were seeing something extremely rare, Adams indicated.

“To see two objects, to see two planets that close together — well, it hasn’t happened in 400 years, well actually closer to 800 years,” he said. “Because sometimes when they’re this close, they are too close to the sun and you can’t see them. We had to wait, the sun set about 5:18 or so, and we didn’t really get to see this until about a quarter to six, because it was just too bright.”

By Tuesday, it wouldn't be the same.

“They’ll be separated by quite a bit,” Adams said. “This is the time they’re close.”