Dance of the Gas Giants, Meteor Showers to Grace Australia’s Night Skies

December 12, 2020 Updated: December 12, 2020

Australian stargazers are in store for a week of extraordinary celestial events as the annual Geminid meteor shower starts Sunday night followed by the rare alignment of two giant gas planets.

The Geminid meteor shower is expected to be visible for a few hours from about 1-2 a.m. AET Monday morning, and is estimated to peak around 3 a.m.

On Dec. 21, the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice, the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn—which happens every 20 years—will been visible in the night sky. But this year, the two gas giants will appear the closest they have been since 1623—only 0.1 degree apart.

Jupiter and Saturn
The distance between Jupiter and Saturn (in degrees and arc minutes) from October to December. (Pete Lawrence [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]/Space Australia)
Australian National University astronomy and astrophysics researcher Brad Tucker said the gas giants will be so close, they will appear as a double object.

“You’ll see a thin crescent moon and two bright objects right next to it—that will be Jupiter and Saturn getting up close and personal,” said Tucker of the upcoming “dance” of the gas giants. “If you have a small telescope or pair of binoculars, you should be able to see the rings and shape of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.”

The Geminid meteor shower appears as the Earth passes through the remaining tail of an asteroid or rock comet known as 3200 Phaethon. Observers may be able to witness the display of over 20 shooting stars an hour, with some estimates suggesting five times more per hour at the peak.

Tucker said that to view the meteor shower, you need to be away from light pollution.

In the southern parts of Australia, you can expect 20 – 50 meteors or shooting stars per hour!” Tucker said. Those further north will see more.

“Some years are better than others, and this year should be a good one,” said Tucker said.

Space Australia’s astrophysicists and science communicator Kirsten Banks said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have a long history using astronomy for things like navigation, timekeeping. Astronomy is also a key element in their ancient culture. Many traditional cultures around the world have deemed astronomical events to be of spiritual and social significance.

She said, “One of my favourite interpretations of the planets in Aboriginal astronomical traditions comes from the Wardaman people in the Northern Territory,” said Kirsten Banks in a Space Australia article on Dec. 9.

“They talk about the planets as spirits that walk the path (the ecliptic) both forwards and backwards (retrograde), and [I] think that is an incredible example of detailed astronomical observations made by Aboriginal peoples in this country for thousands of years.”

Astrophysicist and Women in STEM ambassador Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith said seeing Jupiter ad Saturn through the same lens is a “once-in-many-lifetimes opportunity.” It is a chance for all family members to head outdoors and look up, she said.

To help you identify celestial objects in the sky, try the SkyGuide App (Apple/Google). To snap that perfect space photo, try the NightCap App.