The ‘Christmas star’: Phenomenon to light up sky for first time in 800 years
Stargazers are in for a stellar treat tonight.
“Jupiter and Saturn will be so close together that it will appear as one bright object, unless you’re viewing it with a binocular or telescope,” said Christopher Kersey of the Highland Park Observatory in Baton Rouge.
Some are referring to the rare occurrence as the reappearing of the star mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.’ ”
Referring to what will appear as The Star of Bethlehem is not entirely accurate, according to Kersey. It’s like calling a shooting star a shooting star instead of what it is — a meteor.
“Jupiter and Saturn, two planets, are actually going into conjunction,” he said.
Planets are solid spherical objects that orbit a star. Stars are huge balls of gas plasma with the process of nuclear fusion happening in their cores. The planets of our solar system seen with the unaided eyes — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — have specific colors and movements that distinguish them from the background stars.
A conjunction is when two very bright objects get close together in the sky.
Kersey said on this evening, Jupiter and Saturn would be only a tenth of a degree apart.
“The moon occupies a half-degree in the sky,” he said, “so this separation will only be a fifth of the span of a full moon.”
Since early times, the entire sky has been seen as spanning 360 degrees. Up to about 180 degrees of sky is visible from any given point on earth from north, south, east or west.
This planetary alignment, referred to as “astronomical eye candy” by Jenny Rapson who blogs about family, faith and living in Her View From Home, has not been seen in 800 years.
But that doesn’t mean it will happen again in another 800 years.
“The next extreme conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will be in 2080,” Kersey said.
To view the planetary conjunction, Southwest Louisiana residents should turn their attention to the southwesterly skies.
“By 5 or 5:30 p.m., both planets should be shining through the twilight,” he said. “You’ll need a clear horizon with few buildings or trees. By 6 p.m., the two planets will already be down to only 15 degrees above the horizon.”
Seeing the sight will not require binoculars or a telescope. However, for those considering such a holiday gift for someone on his or her Christmas list, binoculars “make a great first telescope,” Kersey said.
Binoculars yield an image that is four to 12 times larger than it would appear to the naked eye.
“Good tabletop scopes give about eight to 50 times the magnification,” Kersey said. Non-electric, full-sized scopes will give 18 to 120 times the magnification. A good one can cost from $100 to $400.”
Kersey said the sky not destroyed by light pollution contains an astonishing amount of objects to see with the unaided eye.
“In addition to the planets and the stars, one can see the Pleiades and the Hyades, which are both clusters, the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Perseus Double Cluster, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Every one of those should be seen at night from the homes of a majority of people in South Louisiana.”
Astronomical events happen all the time, according to Kersey — Full Moons, opposing planets, meteor showers, extreme conjunctions and total eclipses of the sun.
Meteor showers occur when space rock enters the earth’s atmosphere. As it falls, the resistance makes it extremely hot. The “shooting star” we see is not a star or the rock, but glowing hot air.
Some sights are more surprising than others, for instance, bright comets and supernovae.
The NASA Science Solar System Exploration online site describes comets as “cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the Sun.”
These comets can be the size of a small town. As it gets closer to the earth, it heats up, spewing dust and gases. Tails can stretch millions of miles.
The year that offered COVID and two hurricanes also offered a series of super moons, the end to the seemingly meteor shower drought, a lunar eclipse on the Fourth of July, Perseid (from the constellation Perseus) meteor shower and a blue moon for Halloween.
“In 2020, we had the Moon pass in front of Mars—which definitely does not occur often,” Kersey said.
In addition to stars and planets, plenty of manmade objects are circling the heavens: the International Space Station, the Hubble and other telescopes and working satellites, as well as defunct satellites and spent rocket bodies.
“Often at Highland Road Park Observatory, we and our patrons see an Atlas Centaur 2 that left Earth in November 1963,” Kersey said. “Many of these rocket bodies and military satellites and weather satellites can be seen passing over right after sunset and right before sunrise.”
Almost as many theories surround the significance of the star mentioned in The Bible.
“Some believe it was an actual star,” Kersey said, “or perhaps a supernova. Some people believe it was a comet; that belief seems to be mentioned in the song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The lyrics include the words, ‘with a tail as big as a kite.’ Before his retirement, Louisiana State University Professor gave an annual talk here at HRPO. Using research from Michael Molnar, he argued that the Star of Bethlehem was very possibly a horoscope.”
The April 17, 6 BC natal horoscope shows “very impressive regal portents and points to Judea,” according to a Cornell University online article by Bradley E. Schaefer titled, Astronomical and Historical Evaluation of Molnar’s Solution for the Star of Bethlehem.
It’s possible that this rare planet configuration that happens only once per millennium could coincide with the day of Jesus’ birth thought to be the springtime in a year shortly before Herod’s death in 4 BC.
Schaefer concludes: “Molnar has only identified the Star as originating from a particular natal horoscope, while making no statement about the nature or historicity of any of the other elements of the story in Matthew. So for example, the Magi might be astrologers as idealized by the Greeks of the time, or they might have been non-existent (invented by a latter-day Greek seeking omens for the birth of a great king), and they might have arrived on 17 April 6 BC or months later, and they might or might not have been three in numbers with given names. But for the Star of Bethlehem alone, Molnar’s astrological solution is convincing.”
As to how sun signs, horoscopes and planetary alignment impact personality traits today, Kersey says he hasn’t seen much evidence to support it. However, he would say, “Most people would be stunned to know that the horoscope listings generally given in newspapers, which give each constellation a full month of time) are, for the most part, not the true dates that the Sun passes through each constellation.”
HRPO hours are Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to close (generally 10 p.m.). Only HRPO personnel are allowed on HRPO grounds after sunset, except for special events and scheduled activities. All in-person programming will follow COVID guidelines.