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Save our skies

Be a considerate neighbor: Reduce nighttime glare. Shield all your outside lights downward (or turn them off completely) and enjoy the beautiful, starry night sky.

December 2006 night sky


Since the time of Christ, men have been trying to explain the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. To believers, it could be nothing but a miracle from God; to others, it is a scientific and astronomical curiosity.

Scriptures refer to a "star" that had attracted the attention of wise men from the east, directing them to the land of Jerusalem to honor a newborn king.

"Behold there came three wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and come to worship him..." —Matthew 2:1-2.

Several ideas have been put forth to explain just what was actually in the sky seen as the Star of Bethlehem. The biggest obstacle in solving this puzzle of the Star of Bethlehem, astronomically, is that no one really knows when the star appeared. Biblical scholars tend to believe Christ was born somewhere between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C. To look for an astronomical explanation for such a star, astronomers need to sift through a myriad of astronomical events in a process of elimination. So far, candidates have included meteors, novae, comets, and even planets.

One idea can quickly be dismissed: bright meteors or fireballs. Meteors and fireballs do not usually last more than a few seconds, so this possibility has long been discounted.

One of the best possibilities would seem to be a nova of some type. Stars that go nova suddenly brighten, often becoming visible where no star had been noticed before. And a nova star could have been bright enough to be seen during the day. While this remains a possibility, no conclusive evidence has been found for such an event in the time span of Jesus' birth. Records of such an event have not been discovered, not even the astronomically observant Chinese recorded any such sky event during the years in question. And no remnants of a super nova have been found that could be dated to the right time.

Comets are another popular explanation. They can be very bright and can be visible for several months. Chinese astronomers did record seeing a comet in 5 B.C. and then another in 4 B.C. But comets are not a good candidate either. While the Chinese thought of comets as broom stars, sweeping away the old and bringing in the new, comets were regarded as evil omens in the Middle East. So, it is not very likely that a comet would have been associated with the birth of the Messiah.

One plausible idea involves conjunctions between planets and a star. Planets are bright and easy to find among the background of stars. By simulating the positions of the planets between 7 and 2 B.C., several of notable events have been found. Also, we know that astrology was very important during that time.

During 7 B.C., the planets Jupiter and Saturn had three close encounters, called conjunctions. The closest, during December, 7 B.C., occurred when the planets were two full moon diameters apart from each other. During the month of March in 7 B.C., there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets rose about the same time the sun did. This was an astrologically significant event. Then, in September of that year, the planets rose acronychal; that is, they rose in the east as the sun set in the west. Astrologically, a heliacal rising was thought to signify birth, while the acronychal rising was one of five principal positions the astrologers highly regarded.

Later, in 6 B.C., Mars joined Jupiter and Saturn for a triple conjunction. Extra significance must be given to this event since it occurred in the constellation Pisces. Pisces is the sign of the traditional symbol of the Hebrews and Israel. Along with Pisces, the presence of Saturn was a sign of the promised Messiah.

Furthermore, Jupiter was considered to be a symbol of royalty. All these astrological events seem to point toward something special, and the birth of the Messiah had been predicted.

In 3 B.C. an intriguing sequence lasting ten months had Jupiter coming very close to Venus twice in the sky and to Regulus three times. The most important of these were the three Jupiter-Regulus conjunctions in the constellation Leo. Jupiter and Regulus both meant "king" to the Hebrews, and Leo was a sign of the tribe of Judah. To those watching, the king planet appeared to join with the king star in the royal constellation of Leo. This happened not just once but three times, as the Earth overtook Jupiter in our orbits. In what is known as a “retrograde loop,” Jupiter appeared to slow down, stop, and then move in the opposite direction.

And, finally, in Matthew's account, the "star" appeared to stop over Bethlehem. Simulations show that Jupiter would have appeared to "stand still" for a total of 6 days, including what would have been December 25 in 2 B.C.

This series of events seem to paint a convincing series of events that may have been interpreted as the foretelling of a royal birth and the stationary star over Jerusalem. The one flaw with this explanation concerns King Herod. While no exact date is know for the king's death, it is believed that he died prior to April, 4 B.C.

No matter what was actually observed in the sky some two thousand years ago, it is certain that the dark skies of the day afforded both the magi and the general populace a splendid view of the heavens. My wish for the world of today is to rediscover the awe and respect of our ancestors for the stars seen in totally dark skies. With your help and cooperation, we can get close to that state in rural New Mexico.

• Mercury will be visible before sunrise, low in the east the first half of the month, after its trip across the face of the sun in November.
• Venus will remain in the glare of the sun much of the month, but should start making an appearance on the western horizon the last week of December.
• Mars is also emerging from a trip across the far side of the sun. It will be rising in the east ahead of the sun.
• Look for Jupiter, also in the east, about two hours before sunrise. It, too, is just emerging from the sun's glare.
• There will be a spectacular grouping of Mercury, Jupiter, and Mars on the morning of December 9 in the predawn sky about 7:00 a.m.
• The Geminid meteor shower may produce a nice display before midnight on December 13.
• Saturn rises after 9 p.m. and will be up all night.
• The Moon is full on the December 4 and new on December 20.

If you have a question, comment, or suggestion for Charlie, e-mail him at:


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