Although many people on our planet were salivating earlier this week, trying to catch a glimpse of the so-called “Christmas Star,” a robotic spacecraft orbiting the moon was able to swing around its camera, taking pictures of the world of celestial bodies.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) took a photo of the “Great Confluence”, this is when the large gas planets of Jupiter and Saturn are so close in the sky, they seem to merge into a distant bright object. Similar planetary conjunctions may be the cause of the so-called Star of Bethlehem or the Star of Christmas. Although Jupiter and Saturn meet every 20 years, this year is expected to be a rare sky show that has not been seen in 800 years, because the planets will appear so close when many people can witness it.
The cloudy skies of Michigan obstructed many sky observers. But the LRO detector on the moon has no such problem. When LRO̵
LROC NAC captured this view just a few hours later at the closest separation point (0.1°) between the two giant planets. The LRO staff said in its blog: “With a clear focus, you can see that the two planets are actually about 10 Jupiter diameters apart.”
“The constant motion of the planets means that the moment when Jupiter and Saturn are closest to appear is fleeting. One day later (December 22), you can look up and find that the two planets have separated. As each planet enters the sun The time required for the orbit is different. The alignment of Jupiter and Saturn only occurs once every 20 years, so this closed combination is even rarer – the two planets will no longer have this closed (0.1° interval) until March 2080 .”
According to Space.com, the LRO was launched in 2009 and plans to orbit the moon in the next six years, when the fuel will be exhausted.