If I were more organized a couple of weeks ago I could’ve seen the Aurora Borealis. Maybe you’re familiar with this magnificent natural artwork: the waving colorful “northern lights” spreading across the sky like a wind-ruffled pastel blanket. The best seats for the AB are always to the north, like Alaska or the Arctic, but this year we had a similar instance just driving distance from our house in northern Wyoming. I missed it, darn it. I’ll have to settle for a look at this week’s Christmas Star instead. Er, make that this week’s “Jupiter/Saturn overlap”.
I’ve always been something of an astronomer wannabe. We have beautifully clear skies where we live and on most nights we can see more stars, constellations, and galaxies than we could possibly count. I’ve even invested in tripod-mounted high-power binoculars to get a better look at all things extraterrestrial. So I certainly didn’t miss the recent headlines about Wyoming’s “southern northern lights”, nor the nighttime blast of this week’s Christmas Star. Any astronomical event visible to the naked eye is worth noting in my iPhone calendar.
Jupiter and Saturn aren’t really overlapping, of course (talk about an abundance of gas). They just look like they’re a single celestial object as seen from our Earthling vantage point. They’re still millions of kilometers apart in space, the same way stars in constellations aren’t all the same distance away from us. This blog post is a little late, as the best days to see “Jupiturn” were Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, just after sunset and looking to the west.
Speaking of a little late, let’s talk about the Real Christmas Star (RCS). Surely you’re familiar with RCS, the singularly bright beacon from biblical times guiding the Magi to the birthplace of the baby Jesus (editor’s note: lots of “b’s” in that sentence, Dave). This star moved in a westerly path – as noted in the third verse of “We Three Kings” – like the oversized laser pointer of an invisible tour guide. This star was purported to have stopped directly over Bethlehem close to the events we celebrate on Christmas Day. This star “with royal beauty bright” was…, was…, (spoiler alert) – well, this star wasn’t a star either.
I know, I know. We’re talking about events from over two thousand years ago. Outside of the Bible and pure faith, how can we know the true identity of the RCS? Well, we know because we have astrophysicists. I’m never one to blend science and religion but I’m about to make an exception.
To keep this simple let’s address the basic questions:
- When did the RCS occur? During the reign of King Herod and Emporer Tiberius. Roman historians (and the Bible’s Book of Luke) give the approximate timeframe as 8-4 B.C.
- Who saw the RCS? The Magi according to the Bible, but also Chinese astronomers according to their own records… which go back to (gulp) before 1000 B.C.
- What did the RCS look like? A morning star, because it was rising. Not a comet, not a nova, not even a supernova. In ancient times those three were seen as indicators of negative events. The Magi certainly wouldn’t have followed something negative.
- What was the RCS? Ah, now there’s the question for the Powerball jackpot. And that’s where our astrophysicists come to the rescue. The RCS – like this year’s Jupiturn – was also the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn, only amplified by light from the sun, moon, and at least three other planets. That’s putting a lot of “balls” into play, isn’t it? Celestial alignments happen regularly over time so astrophysicists were able to project backward and offer this likely explanation of the Real Christmas Star.
The RCS alignment from two thousand years ago seems recent compared to its next occurrence. You won’t get that kind of planet-star-satellite party again until the year 16213. That’s fourteen thousand years from now. You won’t be around by then. Maybe Earth won’t be either.
I did look to the west after sunset to see the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn earlier this week. It was bright – sure – but not as if looking directly at the sun. And knowing it wasn’t a “star” took some of the shine off of it (ha). Meanwhile, the Aurora Borealis is out there a little more often. At least I’ll be alive to see its next performance.
Some content sourced from the University of Notre Dame article, “Royal Beauty Bright”.