Kathriona Devereux: Did you see the sky lit up by a ‘Christmas kiss’?

In her last column of 2020, Kathriona Devereux writes about Jupiter, Winter Solstice and her hopes for a brighter 2021
Kathriona Devereux: Did you see the sky lit up by a ‘Christmas kiss’?

An artist’s drawing of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft passing by Jupiter in 1973. The gas giant is in alignment with Saturn at present.

DID you catch the once in 800 year event last night? The Great Conjunction?

Sounds like something my old English teacher might have come up with to improve our grammar, but it is in fact the close alignment of planets Jupiter and Saturn in a ‘Christmas kiss’ so they appear like one big bright star in the night sky.

Don’t worry if you missed it last night, you can check it out again tonight after sunset in the south-western sky. They were at their closest on the longest night of the year and are now moving apart again but will still be visible together for a while longer.

If you have binoculars or a telescope, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four largest moons orbiting the giant planet.

Jupiter actually has 53 named moons and scientists think there may be as many as 79. Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei first observed the four largest moons in 1610 and it is amazing to think we are as fascinated by the night sky now as he was 400 years ago.

If you spot Jupiter, bear in mind it is the biggest planet in the solar system. If you could travel the 882 million kilometres from Earth to Jupiter, you couldn’t set foot on it because it’s actually not solid — it’s a gas giant made mainly of helium and hydrogen. It’s most famous for its Great Red Spot, which is a giant storm bigger than Earth that has raged for more than 200 years. Just to give you a bit of perspective of the enormity of objects and the timescales of our solar system!

Much of what we knew about Jupiter is thanks to the spacecraft Voyager, which did detailed fly-bys of the planet 40 years ago. 

NASA has had the Juno spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter since 2016, with the lofty goal to reveal the story of Jupiter’s formation and evolution.

There are fantastic images from Junocam available on the NASA website and you can even listen to the ‘sound’ of Jupiter. For any budding astronaut or astrophysicist (or curious human) a rummage around NASA’s website over the Christmas break would be time well spent.

Saturn is recognisable for its lovely rings, which are made mainly of icy water, rocks and dust and distinct bands of clouds. Those clouds move around 1,700 kilometers per hour! Oh, and it’s cold on Saturn too — -178 Celsius!

It is not completely unusual for Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits to align so they appear next to each other from Earth. 

In fact, reference to the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ in the story of the birth of Jesus could be a reference to an alignment that happened in 7BC. There have been other accounts throughout history, but it’s been 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other and it’s been 800 years since it happened at night.

This picture was taken on December 20 today inside the megalithic chamber at Newgrange. The dawn light of the Winter Solstice also enters the chamber to a lesser degree for a number of days either side of December 21. Picture Ciara Wilkinson.
This picture was taken on December 20 today inside the megalithic chamber at Newgrange. The dawn light of the Winter Solstice also enters the chamber to a lesser degree for a number of days either side of December 21. Picture Ciara Wilkinson.

That this year’s event happened during the Winter Solstice is merely coincidental, but it optimises the visibility of the alignment because of the early evening darkness and it does give a special feeling that the stars and planets have aligned to put on an extra special celestial show this year.

I always think of December 21 as a significant day, one that marks the depth of winter but also holds the promise of spring and brighter days.

I have a lifelong ambition to visit Newgrange on December 21 as one of the golden ticket holders that win the lottery to witness the light entering the inner chamber. I enter the lottery every year but no luck yet.

However, like most things, this year the Wister Solstice sunrise celebration at Newgrange has gone online. Social distancing in a passage tomb is impossible, so instead the event was live-streamed on the OPW website.

It is amazing to think that, 5,000 years ago, our ancestors constructed a megalithic passage grave to align with the rising sun every year on December 21. And it still works! They were skilled astronomers with excellent constructions skills.

Newgrange took approximately 30 years to build, with 300 people working on its construction and decoration.

There are approximately 200,000 tons of rocks, boulders, earth and clay contained in the cairn, which was all moved to the location without the assistance of a JCB or dump truck.

Such co-operation, ingenuity and dedication sustained over generations is incredible. Imagine 5,000 years ago diverting that much energy and resources towards a monument that aligned with celestial movements, simply to honour the dead.

Except it’s not so hard to imagine when you see the enormous effort and energy Ireland has put in this year to protect our vulnerable and keep us all safe. People have sacrificed so much to shield our communities from Covid-19. Our efforts have been worth it but the emotional, social, financial, spiritual, personals costs have been high.

This is my last column of 2020, and I started the year writing about the science of happiness and how deliberate and expressed gratitude is an essential component to happiness.

After the year we’ve had, I am bursting with gratitude for all our essential workers, especially health care workers, for everything they have done this year.

When I look at the starry sky over the next few days, my Christmas wish will be that we can all enjoy a safe and healthy Christmas and New Year, and that 2021 will be a brighter year for everyone.

Happy Christmas!

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