The year 2020 might feel like the year that never ends, or the lump of coal in Santa’s stocking that keeps on giving, but fear not, the stars are aligning just in time for 2021. Or, rather, the planets.
Monday night, Saturn and Jupiter are going to draw so close together in the sky it is going to look like they are actually colliding.
Local astronomer and former Director of Science Information for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, David Aguilar, writes children’s books on outer space for National Geographic. He was also one of the first human beings to see Pluto up close. He said the evening’s celestial event is called a “conjunction.” It is when two planets pass so close to each other they appear in the night sky to almost touch. For Jupiter and Saturn, conjunctions happen about every 20 years.
“But only this year are they going to be that close together,” Aguilar said. “And you for the first time in your life and for the first time in many years to come, will see Jupiter and Saturn in the same field of view together. It'll really be awesome.”
Aguilar said this will be the first time since 1623 that amateur astronomers will be able to see both planets. This meeting of the planets has been nicknamed the “Christmas Star,” and while this may seem whimsical, there is historical significance to the name. Aguilar said if you go back to around 6 BC or 10 BC, many of the Magi that were living in the Middle East and in Baghdad were astrologers.
“They watched the motion of the planets all the time because they really thought the planets were gods,” Aguilar said. “And as they watched these gods move across the sky, the name ‘planet’ means ‘wander’ to the ancients, they noticed that these two planets came together, obviously they were talking, something was going on.”
He said those two planets were then joined by a star to form a perfect triangle pointing to Bethlehem, and thus the biblical “Star of Bethlehem” was born.
“They would have interpreted that as a sign, a miracle star that has occurred,” Aguilar said. “They would’ve gassed up the camels and off they went. That's all I needed to see.”
Some historians and astrologers now believe that those two planets were Venus and Jupiter in conjunction with the star Regulus at sunset as seen from Baghdad, looking towards Bethlehem.
“It wasn't a comet because comets were feared. If a comet had appeared in the sky, everybody would have run for cover. It wasn't a bright meteor because it hung in the sky. And there isn't anything that correlates up with this time period,” Aguilar said.
Whether you call it the Christmas Star, the Star of Bethlehem or a celestial “conjunction,” Aguilar said you will be able to see what looks like a strange oblong star with a pair of binoculars or an amateur telescope.
“Just look towards the west after the sun has gone down from about five o’clock on, you’ll see Jupiter and Saturn in the sky together,” he said.
Aguilar will be watching from his own personal observatory in Missouri Heights.