Silent night

Conjunction night

All is close

Two so bright...

My friend Eric Norland penned that bit of verse. He and many others, including myself, saw the conjunction by the seat of our pants. Cloudy skies were forecast for the Duluth region, so I packed up and drove to southwestern Minnesota where the weather looked more favorable. Meanwhile, as a blessed half-hour of clear skies opened over Duluth, I waited for the clouds to part 188 miles away. At 5:35 p.m. they did, and the stars of the show arrived just in time.

Saturn and Jupiter
Saturn and Jupiter Nathan Klok used a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens and two 2x extenders to photograph Jupiter and Saturn last night around 6 p.m. from St. James, Minn. Together they were equivalent to a 1600mm focal length lens. Three of Jupiter's moons and four of Saturn's are visible. (Nathan Klok Photography / nklokphoto.com / @nklokphoto)

I long ago accepted that being an amateur astronomer would mean long, dark hours and uncertain weather. But adventure has always been a part of the hobby, whether ending in success or not. Those two tiny points of planetary light sparked a sweet pleasure in the heart and provided a quiet contrast to the harsh wind blasting across the brown fields and the whoosh of passing cars. Several weeks ago I wondered if the duo might be too close to split apart without optical aid, but they were as easy as could be. Had they been half as close again I think we would have still seen them separately.

The double planet hovers over a hill from the Southern Hemisphere city of Ezeiza, Argentina on Dec. 21st. The photo was taken with a pair of 7x binoculars and cell phone. (Piqui Diaz)
The double planet hovers over a hill from the Southern Hemisphere city of Ezeiza, Argentina on Dec. 21st. The photo was taken with a pair of 7x binoculars and cell phone. (Piqui Diaz)

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I watched for about 45 minutes, took a few photos and let out a whoop. Then the clouds returned. I turned around and drove back home through the long solstice night listening to Christmas music while eating a ham sandwich and balancing a yogurt cup at the steering wheel. I thought about my forgotten ancestors who perhaps watched the last great conjunction back in March 1226. Their love, perseverance and luck got me here. What are the odds? I am their witness.

The moon will be in conjunction with Mars on Dec. 23. (Stellarium)
The moon will be in conjunction with Mars on Dec. 23. (Stellarium)

You can still enjoy wonderful views of the two gas giants through Christmas as Jupiter, the faster planet, outpaces and distances itself from Saturn. Tonight (Dec. 22) they'll be nearly as close as last night and just as gorgeous. Another conjunction is in the offing, too. On Wednesday night (Dec. 23) the gibbous moon passes just 5° below the still-bright-but-fading planet Mars.

Also on the 23rd, keep watch for the northern lights. Material released from a coronal hole on the sun arrived at Earth and fired up a brief G1 (minor) storm on Dec. 21 that was seen from northern Minnesota and Michigan. A second round of potential G1 activity may arrive Wednesday afternoon and continue into the night. And get this. There's even a chance for auroras during the wee hours of Christmas morning, when Santa's on his sleigh delivering presents to all the good little girls and boys.

Bring me aurora, Santa. I've been a good boy.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.