Christmas star: real or a myth?
WE SEE it every year around this time, blazing brightly overhead, shining brightly just after sunset in the western sky.
Some people call this the Christmas star.
The Star of Bethlehem is one of the most powerful and enigmatic symbols of Christianity. For centuries historians have debated the nature of this biblical light that heralded the birth of Jesus. Was it purely a divine sign, or was it an astronomical event in its own right?
I became curious and did some investigating and think we've found an answer, or at least something that fits all the known facts. With modern astronomy software programs, astronomers can reproduce the night sky exactly as it was thousands of years ago. Wouldn't it be good if we could go back and have a look at the night sky of Christ's time - to see if we could spot the Christmas star?
Well, we did. Get ready for a surprise, because it looks like the Christmas star really did exist.
Armed with an approximate date for the birth of Jesus from Matthew's version of the Bible, the only version with everyone in roughly the same place, my astronomy group and I began our search for the star of Bethlehem.
Now, historical records and our own computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during the years 3 BC and 2 BC.
As we watched the screen, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, started moving closer together. Wow! Like the final pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, our fabled biblical beacon started to reveal itself.
The crowning touch came 10 months later, on June 17, 2BC, as Venus and Jupiter appeared to actually join up in the constellation Leo. This time the two planets were so close that, without binoculars, they would have looked like one single brilliant white beacon of light.
Jupiter was known as the planet of Kings and it all took place in the constellation of Leo, denoting royalty and power.
The whole sequence of events could have been enough for the fabled three wise men to see this as a sign in the heavens that the Messiah had been, or was about to be, born.
Was this the fabled Christmas star? It could be, but this doesn't mean that astrology works.
It does, however, make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting and real astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.
David Reneke is the editor and publisher of Astro Space News. He is a writer, lecturer, radio science correspondent, author, educator and writer for Australasian Science magazine. You can receive David's free weekly email newsletter by visiting his website http://www.davidreneke.com