category: Campus Conversations

On Dec. 21, Southwest Sky Features Celestial Event Called Christmas Star

Williams Observatory at night
The Williams Observatory at Gardner-Webb University

Saturn and Jupiter Will be in Their Closest Alignment in 800 Years

Written by Dr. David Judge

Saturn and Jupiter have been dancing closer and closer to each other for months, coming together in a conjunction on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice. It is being called the Christmas Star, as it brightens the sky at the darkest time of the year, like Christ brightening the world with his birth.

The two planets come close to each other in cycles, but being this close to look like one “star” in December hasn’t happened for nearly 800 years. The last time this conjunction occurred was in 2000, but they weren’t as close as this month and were hard to see. 

Viewing Saturn and Jupiter

People will not need binoculars to see bright Saturn and Jupiter. They are some of brightest objects and so bright people in western North Carolina can easily see them. They are found as the sky darkens in the Southwest sky, relatively low to the horizon. They have to be seen early in the evening as they will set below the horizon between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 21.

Astronomy students at Gardner-Webb were able to look at these two planets through telescopes in November at the observatory with help from the Cleveland County Astronomical Society. They saw moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the Andromeda and Ring galaxies using the 16-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope donated to Gardner-Webb by Dr. James Hermann.

a graphic illustration showing how Saturn and Jupiter are coming closer together in the skyf
Illustration by Pete Lawrence / Sky At Night Magazine

The Christmas Star

Astronomers have researched what natural circumstances could have been responsible for the star that the Magi followed as they traveled to Bethlehem. There was a Saturn/Jupiter conjunction, but they were not that close. Another popular theory is that a Supernova occurred, which involves an exploding star and brightens the sky like nothing else. However, Chinese astronomers did not record any such event in their thorough records of the sky. 

The best theory is a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Regulus. Following is an explanation from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich: “Jupiter in Hebrew is known as ‘Sedeq,’ which is often translated as meaning righteousness. Jupiter is also often viewed as being the ‘king’ of the planets. Regulus itself is Latin for ‘prince’ or ‘little king,’ and Venus is often viewed as a symbol of love, fertility and birth. As such, the combination of these objects close in the sky could have led to the interpretation of the birth of the ‘King of Kings.’

Regardless of the scientific explanation of the Magi’s Star, the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on Dec. 21 is wonderful thing for everyone to see in the night sky tonight, on the Solstice, Christmas, and months to come. It reminds us of the brightness that Christ brings us.

Dr. David Judge, professor of biology and biology lab coordinator at Gardner-Webb University, is currently teaching astronomy. He received his Master of Science Degree and his doctorate in Entomology from Virginia Tech.

An illustration showing how close Saturn and Jupiter will become on Dec. 21, 2020.
Credit: Skysafari app

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