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The Star of Bethlehem

December 21, 2011; 7:48 AM ET

First of, let me state that I hope everyone has a happy and safe holiday season, no matter what your beliefs or what holiday you celebrate. Related to astronomy, I wanted to share with you some theories about the star of Bethlehem.

In Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem, also called the Christmas Star, heralded the birth of Jesus to the magi, or "wise men," and later led them to Bethlehem. The star appears in the Gospel of Matthew, where magi "from the east" are guided by the star to travel to Jerusalem.

Many Christians see the star as a miracle to mark the birth of the Christ. Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prediction, known as the Star Prophecy. Astronomers have made several attempts to say that is was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a comet or a supernova.

According to modern translations, the magi said that they saw the star "at its rising", which suggests an astronomical event. In 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 B.C. However, modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive. Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces.

Another theory is that the "star" was a comet. Halley's Comet was visible in 12 B.C. and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 B.C. This object was observed for over 70 days with no movement recorded. Ancient writers described comets as hovering near specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have "stood over" the "place" where Jesus was (the town of Bethlehem). However, this is generally thought unlikely as in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens.

Another theory is a conjunction of the planet Uranus with either Saturn or Venus. Its faint magnitude and relatively slow motion across the sky suggest that it could have been noticed only by people who were intimately familiar with the heavens, such as the magi, but appeared much brighter when it was in conjunction. Because Uranus is actually a planet, it can appear to "stop" at a certain point in the sky, as it transitions between periods of retrograde motion.

A recent hypothesis is that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova or hypernova occurring in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. Although supernovae have been detected in Andromeda, it is extremely difficult to detect a supernova remnant in another galaxy, let alone obtain an accurate date of when it occurred.

Yet another theory is that the star was was probably an unusual alignment of the moon and other planets that is very rarely seen.

Other, more non-astronomical theories are that is was a supernatural phenomenon to mark the birth, such as a UFO or a group of angels.

What the Star of Bethlehem may have looked like in the night sky 2,000 years ago

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Astronomy Blog
The astronomy blog, by Dave Samuhel, discusses stargazing, including how weather will affect viewing conditions of astronomical phenomenon.