There has been a lot of buzz the last several weeks over the “Christmas Star,” which will be visible in the night sky on Dec. 21. Finally, a news headline we can all get behind. Thank you Jesus! We needed a sign from the heavens that everything was going to be all right.
So what is this Christmas Star? In fact, it is not a star at all. It is what science refers to as a conjunction, the alignment of two or more objects in space, i.e. two planets, three planets, a planet and the moon, I think you get where I am going here. Not only will the solar system’s two largest planets, Saturn and Jupiter, align on the 21st, but it also marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of sunlight in the year for the northern hemisphere. Conjunctions happen about every 20 years, but what is special about this one is that the last time these two planets were this close in their conjunction and visible in the night sky was March 4, 1226, almost 800 years ago. That is impressive considering that the last time man witnessed this in the night sky, Ghenghis Khan was conquering parts of Russia and the 5th Crusade was taking place in parts of Egypt.
You can find Saturn and Jupiter in the night sky right now as Saturn closes in on Jupiter, getting closer each day until the 21st when it will catch and then pass the planet in the night sky. The planets are currently located in the southwestern sky. They are located low in the sky after dusk near the horizon. This makes unobstructed views crucial to see them. The forecast as of print is clear skies for the night of the conjunction, but such was the forecast for the Geminid meteor shower this past Sunday. After the year it has been, I was looking forward to witnessing 60-120 meteors race across the sky every hour. Instead, I set looking out my back door watching it rain without a star visible in the night sky. Such is 2020.
From here on out is where it gets a little harry with the details on what the Christmas Star will or won’t be, according to which expert you take advice from. Some say you will at least need a regular telescope to enjoy the site. Others say you can see it just fine with the naked eye. Others say those with good vision will not see one “star” from the conjunction but two, while those with poor eyesight may see one “star”. My advice after listening to all the experts is this: if, like me, this is something you would like to see, go out in the nights proceeding Dec. 21 and find the planets. If you can see them fine as they near each other, you will be able to see them conjuncted. This also leads to another good fact to point out. Since they are so low in the southwestern sky right now, there is only about an hour window of visibility after dusk with these planets before they slip below the horizon.
After spending the whole year focused on an invisible little virus with spikes all over it, I’m ready to embrace a Christmas Star in the night sky for the first time in 800 years, regardless of whether it is a blip or a bang. Like the shepherds tending their flocks, I have always found myself most in awe of and in touch with God, staring up at the night sky in all its splendor. Who can’t get excited about the potential of a Christmas Star? Plus, it is one day closer to Christmas when we stare upon that manger with joy. If baby Jesus doesn’t give you hope, well…I don’t know what else to say.