Following on from his ‘Reflections On the Pandemic’ in May, Sheffield-based campaigner Victor Mujakachi reflects on current events in the heavens, and closer to home.
The 21st Of December 2020 is the day of the gods. It is the divine rendezvous when Giant Jupiter, the fifth planet in the solar system, comes closest to Saturn when the two planets are 773 million miles apart, and from the line of sight on earth appear to be one bright object in the evening sky. This is the great conjunction, the last of which was seen in terms of proximity, in July 1623.
The next such event, when the two planets’ elliptical paths come this close, would be in 5521 years, in the year 7541.
According to Roman mythology, Jupiter was the king of the gods and Saturn his father was the god of agriculture and wealth.
The planets Jupiter and Saturn have a periodic pattern of coming close together in their orbital paths around the sun over a twenty year cycle. Jupiter’s orbit around the sun takes approximately 12 Earth years. Saturn takes approximately 30 Earth years. To put this into context, the planet Earth only takes 365 days a year in its revolution. I’ve simplified these figures for all the three planets.
Viewed from the Earth and our line of sight this time around, the two planets will appear as one bright light as they will be about a tenth of a degree apart, when there will be a vast physical distance 733,000,000 million kilometers from each other. From our line of sight on Earth they would be a tenth of a degree from each other, when in actual effect there would be millions of acres of space between them!
Jupiter and Saturn always come close together over a twenty year cycle. On June 1821 the two planets were 1°15’ apart as viewed from Earth. In January 1981 they were 1°09’. In May 2000 they were 1°11’. On the 21st of December 2020 they will be a tenth of a degree apart and that’s very close and special as the next time when they will come so near to each other would be in the year 7541! So get out and take your telescopes and pairs of binoculars to see this once in a lifetime astronomical event unless of course you can stick around until the year 7541.
Celestial objects have always fascinated me since when I was very young. Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped on the moon seven days after my ninth birthday and four days after my younger brother’s fourth birthday. We did not have television at all during those days. My father had travelled to Salisbury now Harare from Umvukwes, now Mvurwi in the then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe where we lived and where my father taught at St Peter’s School.
It was left to my mother to describe the events of the 20th of July 1969. She had listened to a late broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon over the radio after which she described to us the following evening of the arrival of Apollo 11 and that two men called Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, American astronauts were walking on the moon. I was captivated by the animated manner in which my mother talked about the space voyage. I had no idea then that the moon was a world. Until then I had grown up to regard it as a night light in the sky just as the sun lit up the sky during the day. It so happened that the time of the Apollo 11 landing it was nearly full moon.
July is mid winter in the southern hemisphere. The winters are not as cold as the northern hemisphere. The moon was shining. A very large bright disk. My childlike curiosity took the better of me when my mother finished telling us of the two men on the moon. I went out of the house and looked up at the silver disk in the sky. It was large and had not reached the zenith as it rose in the night sky from the eastern horizon. I squinted my eyes in an attempt to detect human movement on the moon. Surely if the silver moon was hanging just above the clouds giving such a bright light, why wouldn’t I see the two men on it? I asked myself. Street lamps gave out bright lights and we often saw men repairing them when they got damaged, I reasoned out. My mother saw this and told me that the moon was very far and that I would not see anyone on it. I still was not convinced and thought that if the moon were to come out during the day, I would climb the tall eucalyptus tree behind our house in an attempt to see the two men.
In 1986, I was again mesmerised by Halley’s Comet. I had just got married. My wife was pregnant with our first child. I kept thinking that the unborn child would see the comet at age 76 long after me, but at least I saw Halley’s Comet. The most significant time that Halley’s Comet was seen was in 1066 was before the Battle of Hastings following the invasion of England by King William The Conqueror.
It is interesting to note that the England football team was defeated two goals to one by Argentina in June 1986 with a controversial first goal and a second spectacular goal dubbed the goal of the century, both goals scored by Diego Maradona. I watched the match live on television in Zimbabwe. Could this football defeat have been the effect of the appearance of Halley’s Comet?
Another event that shook the world in September 1986, at least in Africa, was the death of President Samora Moises Machel of Mozambique following a plane crash near the South African border. South Africa was in the grip of apartheid, a political philosophy of racial segregation of black South Africans then practised by a predominantly white minority government in South Africa before Nelson Mandela became president. The attention of the world had been on Zimbabwe in September of that year when Zimbabwe hosted a meeting of non-aligned countries at the time the world was divided into two political camps, the Soviet Bloc countries and the Western Bloc. It is said, although this can not be substantiated, that the South African apartheid government placed a decoy beacon that lured President Samora Machel’s presidential aeroplane to approach the airport slightly off course during landing resulting in the jet crashing and killing him instantly after he had left Zimbabwe from the non-aligned countries’ summit in 1986.
In 1997 this part of the universe had another spectacular celestial visitor from outer space in the form of a comet called Hale-Bopp. I had read about it in the Zimbabwean press and soon contacted The Harare Astronomical Society who are based at Prince Edward School in Harare for more information. Although I was never a member of the society I went to attend one of the society’s meetings during which a discussion of the comet Hale-Bopp was made. The discussion was very informative. The audience was given guidance as to the best possible places to obtain a good view of the comet.
The society set up a temporary site at Ruwa Country Club, 40 kilometers from Harare city centre. The choice of Ruwa Country Golf Club by The Harare Astronomical Society was strategic in that the place is scenic and away from the glare of city lights. I drove my three sons Tapiwa, Simba and Tino who was just over two years old, to Ruwa Country Club. We were exposed to a variety of telescopes and binoculars in addition to being shown how to pinpoint the exact location of the comet in the western night sky where it was visible. Hale-Bopp, discovered by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp was very easy to detect as it was so bright and could be seen by the naked eye. As the comet became dimmer and slid back into deep space I knew that what I was experiencing would not be seen by humanity again for the next 6,000 years! The last time Hale-Bopp was in perihelion, in this part of the skies before 1995, was around the time that the pyramids of Egypt were being built.
In a rare occurrence, Zimbabwe experienced two solar eclipses in two consecutive years, June 2001 and December 2002, a situation that temporarily boosted its tourism industry as foreign tourists visited the country to view the natural wonder in the skies when the moon comes in between the sun and earth thereby casting its shadow on the earth. The Zimbabwean government had enshrined into law, two years before, the compulsory acquisition of land owned by white commercial farmers purportedly, to distribute it to landless black Zimbaweans who themselves had been dispossessed of the land during colonialism. The manner of land acquisition became controversial, stigmatizing Zimbabwe into a pariah state, a situation that brought about international economic sanctions which negatively affected its tourism industry.
Those that are able can go out to watch Jupiter and Saturn “meet” please do so, and as Brexit discussions take place it is hoped that there will be a meeting of minds among the Brexit negotiators.
A vaccine for covid-19 has been found. This is welcome news. The United Kingdom government is the first country in the world to authorise the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech. It is reported that The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) of the United Kingdom did an assessment of the processes that Pfizer and BioNTech were undertaking in a procedure known as the rolling review which allows the regulatory body to approve the vaccine during a public health emergency in the shortest time possible.
Whilst the United Kingdom has started purchasing the vaccine before the 31st of December ahead of leaving the single market one wonders whether supply lines will be disrupted afterwards hindering access to the vaccine.
Will Giant Jupiter make smaller Saturn see sense about the fiasco that is Brexit? I wonder.
From our line of sight on Earth on the 21st of December, metaphorically speaking, Jupiter will appear supreme to deliver a Brexit that is not a Brexit after all as the trade talks go to the wire.
We should all be moving freely across borders like planets and comets do in space and in the heavens without restrictions. That is the nature of things. Free movement across borders, space and time.