The Great Conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn that’s happening happened on 21 December 2020 attracted a lot of attention and excitement. Many amateur astronomers looked forward to the event for years, and many non-astronomers are had their eyes opened to the beauty of the night sky for the first time.
But it’s not the first time these two distant worlds have had such a close encounter. They’ve met like this before, several times, a long, long time ago – and I found a unique and very personal way of connecting those past events with this one.
I go up to Kendal Castle in Cumbria a lot, either for taking astrophotos or just visiting. It’s a lovely place: peaceful and historically important too.
Once a fortress, it’s now essentially a hollowed-out shell. Its once tall towers have collapsed and its walls have turned to landslides of rubble in places. But it’s still beautiful, and it stands above Kendal like a great stone statue.
I’ve spent long cold nights there, shivering, watching meteor showers and seeing it silhouetted against electric blue noctilucent clouds, and in July 2020 I photographed gorgeous Comet NEOWISE from there.
I’ve spent long afternoons there too, winding down after work, stretched out on the long grass, reading in the sunshine. It’s a very important place to me.
There was a Great Conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn 800 years ago, when Kendal Castle was brand new.
Its construction had been completed in 1215, so as the two planets came together the castle would have been a magnificent sight, with banners flying from its towers and people coming and going through its huge arched entrance.
Looking east before sunrise on the morning of 5 March 1226, people would have seen the conjunction from the new castle, maybe from the fields around it, maybe from its castle walls or windows, who knows?
And with no light pollution what a sight their sky must have been.
Fast forward in time to 25 August 1563, when the two planets shone close together again, again in the morning sky.
By that time the castle was falling into disrepair, and its owners, the Parr family (including Catherine Parr, who would go on to marry Henry the 8th), had moved out of the castle and were living in more comfortable ‘dwellings’ down in the town below.
No-one was living in the castle, but it would have been an ideal place to view the conjunction from, and those Kendalians who didn’t trek up the hill to see it from there would have seen the two planets shining above the castle before dawn from the streets below.
Fast forward again to today, and the castle is witnessing its third Great Conjunction. I went up there yesterday evening hoping to get at least one photo of the planets shining above it.
It was totally cloudy as I trekked up the hill, and as I reached the top a heavy, sleety rain began to fall so I took shelter in the ruins, in a small cave-like chamber with lichen covering the walls and dripping stalactites hanging down from the ceiling.
Eventually a rip appeared in the cloud, and there they were: Jupiter and Saturn, shining close together in the twilight above what was left of one of the castle’s towers!
I managed to grab a few photos before the clouds filled in the gap, and that was it. But I did it, I saw them, and although my images aren’t scientifically significant or useful in any way I like to think they make, and honour, my castle’s connection with the past.
Unfortunately, for many people in the UK the actual conjunction on 21 December was obscured by clouds but several did manage to capture the event on camera, either on the day itself or in the run up to it. Here is a gallery of some of our best images taken by you, our readers.
Stuart Atkinson is a science writer and astronomy journalist.