Venus and the crescent moon pair up in the southeastern sky tomorrow morning Feb. 26. This map shows the view about 45 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium
Feel like starting your day under the influence … of the cosmos? If you’re up early tomorrow, take a look to the southeast before sunrise. You’ll be greeted by the beautiful sight of Venus and the crescent moon paired up against dawn’s pink glow.
For some the duo will gleam over a snowy landscape, for others it could be a tropical ocean. But if you live in West Africa, the timing and location are just right for the moon to occult or cover Venus.
Venus emerging from the dim, Earth-illuminated portion of the moon as seen from Libreville, Gabon tomorrow morning at dawn. Stellarium
The planet will disappear along the moon’s bright limb and then reappear about an hour later along the dark, earth-lit portion. The appearance of the brilliant planet poking out from behind the dark moon will make a striking sight at dawn.
Observers there may even attempt to see the mysterious Ashen Light, a controversial glow in Venus’ dark hemisphere that may or may not be real. The best time to try for it – again, if you happen to be in equatorial Africa – is when the bright Venusian crescent is still hidden by the moon with its dark hemisphere poking over the edge.
On the easier and less controversial side, the moon will make Venus incredibly easy to spot in daylight.
For the Americas, Venus and the moon will have put 4 degrees (8 moon diameters) of sky between them by the time they rise. Still, if you pay attention to where Venus is in relation to the moon when it’s easy to spot before sunrise, you might succeed in finding the planet in the daytime too. Good luck!
A sight worth the frozen fingers. The wafer-thin crescent moon alongside Mercury (upper left) over the Duluth, Minn. – Superior, Wis. area last night during twilight. The planet was visible for more than 1 hour 15 minutes after sunset. Details: 150mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 400 and 1/4″ exposure. Credit: Bob King
Hope you saw the pairing of Mercury and the 1-day-old moon last night. If you missed it or had to put up with bad weather, a slightly thicker crescent will hover a “fist” above Mercury in the western sky during twilight tonight. Start looking about 40 minutes after sunset.
The wiry moon sets over Duluth’s Spirit Mountain ski hill – many of the runs were lit up Friday night. Notice the prominent earthshine or darkly-lit moon. This is light reflected off Earth and out to the moon, where it’s reflected back again to our eyes. Details: 350mm lens at f/4.5, ISO 800 and 1-second exposure. Credit: Bob King
Be sure to catch the planet sometime in the next week before it slinks back toward the horizon and disappears in the twilight glow. The moon was so thin that its Cheshire cat smile appeared slightly broken or irregular to the eye. Sure wish I’d brought binoculars for a closer look.
Beautifully composed shot of Venus and the morning crescent on Jan. 28, 2014 on either side of a statue of astronomer Nicholas Copernicus at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill. Copyright: Don MacKay
One day before new moon phase, lots of folks reported sightings of a similarly skinny crescent to the lower left of Venus in the dawn sky. I received a couple beautiful images to share with you. Enjoy.
One day later on Jan. 29 the moon had moved to the left and below brilliant Venus. This photo taken from the woodlands of Lakewood Township near Duluth, Minn. Details: 1.6 sec, 70mm F4, ISO 400. Credit: James Schaff
Illustration (not to scale) showing why the evening crescent faces one way and the morning crescent the other. As the moon orbits the Earth, sunlight illuminates its left or eastern edge before new moon. After new moon, the right or western edge is lit. Illustration: Bob King
The view facing southeast Tuesday morning Jan. 28 about 45 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium
Tomorrow morning between 45 minutes and an hour before sunrise, take a look to the southeast to see fresh-faced Venus alongside the old crescent moon. If you have 8-10x binoculars, you’ll make a delightful discovery – Venus has nearly the same phase as that of the lunar crescent.
Venus is about two weeks out of conjunction and gradually filling out in phase, while the moon dwindles toward new phase, when it’s so thin it can’t be seen at all. Both lie west of the sun and in nearly the same line of sight – that’s why they appear as thin crescents with the sun just touching their eastern rims.
The big picture in the southern sky this Saturday morning at dawn shows the moon just a degree below Saturn with Mars at upper right in the south and Venus very low in the southeastern sky. Stellarium
A very nice, close pairing of Saturn and the waning 3rd quarter moon will happen Saturday morning at dawn. With late sunrises still the rule, this should be a very easy event to catch even through a parted window shade.
At closest, the two will be just two moon widths or 1 degree apart. Saturn’s in Libra the Scales, a dim constellation that precedes the brighter, more picturesque Scorpius the Scorpion. You can see part of the scorpion to the lower left of the duo. In particular, look for the bright red supergiant star Antares.
Both Libra and Scorpius are late spring-early summer constellations, visible at nightfall in May when the butterflies fly. It’s thoughts like these that lift our spirits on cold winter nights. I had the same feeling two nights ago when I happened to be out observing around 11:30 p.m. and caught sight of a “new” star flashing in the northeastern sky – Arcturus. If there were ever a vanguard of spring, this star is it. Arcturus creeps higher every frigid night until the snow is gone, the leaves turn out and jackets are shed.
Mobile phone shot of Venus in twilight Monday morning. Credit: Sean Cassidy
While you’re out enjoying Saturday’s conjunction (by the way, Saturday’s named for the Roman god Saturn) stay out a little longer to enjoy the reappearance of Venus low in the southeastern sky about 40 minutes before sunrise. Sean’s photo will help you know what to expect.
Venus is back! This time in the morning sky during mid-twilight. This view shows the planet about 10 degrees high (one fist at arm’s length) 40 minutes before sunrise tomorrow. Stellarium
Like resurrected gods, Mercury and Venus passed closest to the fiery glare of the sun earlier this month and disappeared from view for a time. Now they’ve returned but on opposite sides of the sun – Mercury in the evening and Venus in the morning.
Venus lingered for months in the dusky dusk until Jan. 11 when it passed between the sun and Earth and disappeared in the solar glare. Now she’s west of the sun, rising at dawn and visible with the naked eye about 40 minutes before sunrise.
Mercury has also stayed “close” to the sun and hidden from northern hemisphere sky watchers’s eyes during the first half of January. Now it’s crawling up the southwestern evening sky and will gradually become easier to see in the next week. While a feeble replacement for brilliant Venus, the solar system’s elusive, innermost planet is a rarer sight by far.
Mercury’s position shown 30 minutes after sunset on three dates. A very thin crescent will pass near the planet on Jan. 31. Mercury’s altitude is about 4 degrees tonight, 8 deg. on the 26th and 10 deg. on the 31st. The map shows the sky facing west-southwest. Stellarium
I’ve prepared simple maps for you to find both of these wanderers. You’ll need a clear horizon to the southeast to spy Venus and the same to the southwest for Mercury. You’ll find Venus much easier to spot because it’s so much brighter than Mercury and somewhat higher too.
In early January Venus lay east of the sun in the evening sky with its horns pointing left; now in late January, it’s swung west of the sun into the morning sky with the tips pointing west. Illustration: Bob King
If you’ve been following the planet over the last month, you’ll notice that the crescent is reversed from its evening appearance, with horns pointing up to the right instead of left. Tomorrow morning the crescent measures 59 arc seconds across or nearly one arc minute (60 arc seconds), equal to 1/30 the diameter of the full moon. 7-10x binoculars will easily show the delicate Venusian crescent.
Venus and Mercury on Jan. 19 viewed through a telescope (or in Venus’ case, also binoculars). Although not shown to scale in this illustration, Venus is more than 10 times larger in appearance than Mercury. Stellarium
Don’t expect to see Mercury’s humpbacked gibbous phase in the old opera glass. The munchkin planet spans only 3,032 miles across (2.5 times smaller than Venus) and is currently on the far side of its orbit 4.6 times farther from Earth than Venus. With a disk just 5.5 arc seconds across, Mercury’s phase will require a telescope magnifying around 100x to see clearly.
Now all you’ve got to do is resurrect yourself from the couch and go out for a look.
Two crescents over Duluth, Minn. U.S. at dusk yesterday Jan. 2. One you can see just by looking up; the other you’ll need binoculars for. Credit: Bob King
Last night the crescent moon joined a teeny tiny crescent Venus at dusk. Tonight you can watch for them again. While no optical aid is needed to enjoy a lunar crescent, Venus needs a helping hand. If you have binoculars that magnify at least 7x, point them at the planet and you’ll see a miniature replica of tonight’s crescent moon.
Venus through a 300mm telephoto lens and 1.4x teleconverter last night. This is how the planet will look through a pair of binoculars. Credit: Bob King
It’s a sight not to miss. Why? Venus is rapidly approaching the sun from our perspective and will soon pass between Earth and the sun. As the angle it makes to the sun narrows, we see less and less of the planet illuminated by sunlight until little is left but a skinny crescent. It’s a big crescent too because Venus is the closest it’s been to Earth since June 2012.
Diagram shows Venus’ orbit around the sun. Right now it’s ALMOST lined up between sun and Earth and shows as a very thin crescent. On Jan. 11 Venus will be at inferior conjunction – directly between sun and Earth – and then move west of the sun and appear in the morning sky. Illustration: Bob King
Comet next Saturday Jan.11, the planet undergoes inferior conjunction when it slides between sun and Earth. You won’t see it that day or for a week or two after as the planet will be lost in the sun’s glare. By about the 20th, Venus will “switch side”, rising in the east before sunrise. That’s why now is the time to catch the waning Venusian crescent before it’s too late.
Crescent Earth on Jan. 1, 2014 photographed by the GOES East satellite. Credit: NASA
While we’re on the topic of sickle-shaped celestial objects, even Earth can look like a crescent moon from the right perspective. The photo was taken by the GOES-13 East weather satellite on New Year’s Day from geostationary orbit from a distance of about 22,200 miles (36,000 km).
An 18-hour-old crescent moon photographed with a 12-inch telescope on April 22, 2012. An even younger moon may be visible tonight in the southwestern sky shortly after sundown. Credit: John Chumack and Maurice Massey
2014 begins with a chance to spy an exceptionally thin crescent moon shortly after sunset and possibly the shimmer of aurora at nightfall.
The thin crescent about 1.5 days before new moon on Jan. 21, 2012. Credit: Bob King
The moon’s age is determined by how many hours or days have passed since new moon phase. New moon occurs once a month when the moon lies in nearly the same direction as the sun in the sky. No one can see a new moon because it stays very close to the sun and hides in the glare of daylight.
Under favorable circumstances it’s not too difficult to spot a 1-day-old moon, referred to as a young moon because it’s the first or youngest bit of moon we see after new moon. Young moons are delicate, faint and tucked far down in the twilight glow shortly after sunset.
Spotting a moon fewer than 24 hours old requires planning. You need a flat horizon, haze-free skies and a pair of binoculars. Being on time’s important, too. Be sure to arrive at your observing spot shortly before sundown. Knowing the point on the horizon where the sun sets will guide you to the crescent’s location.
Venus – still visible low in the southwestern sky at dusk – will also be a big help tonight. It’s perfect for getting a sharp focus with your binoculars, essential for seeing the faint lunar crescent clearly. The planet hovers some 7-8 degrees to the moon’s upper left. When you focus on it, you’ll be in for a surprise. I wish I could tell you, but that would spoil the fun.
Diagram showing the sky facing southwest from the Minneapolis area 20 minutes after sunset or at 5:02 p.m. today. The moon will be about 3.5 degrees high at the time. The view will be similar across the Midwest. Further west, the moon will be somewhat higher and closer to Venus. Stellarium
New moon occurred at 5:14 a.m. (CST) today, making tonight’s crescent approximately 12 hours old for skywatchers in the Midwest. Since the moon’s orbit carries it moves east of the sun its own diameter every hour, skywatchers in the western U.S. will have a somewhat easier time of seeing it. From Denver, the moon will be 13 hours old, San Francisco 14 hours and Hawaii 16 hours.
Given that the record for the earliest naked eye sighting of the moon after (or before) new phase is 15 hours 32 minutes and the earliest binocular/telescope observation is 11 hours 40 minutes, most of us will need some kind of optical aid to spy tonight’s silvery sliver.
I recommend a pair of binoculars in the 35mm-50mm range with a generous field of view. Oh, and don’t forget your heavy coat and boots for warmth. Locales with open horizons are generally the windiest places in the world.
Now here’s a lovely view. The waning crescent moon rises above Earth’s atmosphere as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Here’s a checklist of what you’ll need:
* Figure out your sunset and moonset times HERE. That way you’ll know exactly when and for how long to watch.
* Thank your lucky stars if the sky is extremely clear and without haze or clouds in the southwest direction.
* Arrive no later than sunset, face toward the direction of sunset and focus your binoculars or telescope on Venus, that brilliant “star” you’ll see about 1 to 2 fists high in the southwestern sky.
* Start looking for the moon 10 minutes after sunset by slowly sweeping the sky just a few degrees above the sunset point. Continue to look for the next 25 minutes giving your eyes an occasional rest and checking focus. You’ll be looking for the thinnest of the thin, no more than a partial arc scratched across the deepening blue.
* If you spy the moon in binoculars, carefully lower them and try to find the moon with your naked eye.
Whether you have success of not, I welcome anyone who attempts this observing challenge to share your observation in our comments section. Good luck to you!
The coronal hole – photographed on Dec. 30 in far ultraviolet light – that might could lead to a chance at seeing the northern lights tonight and tomorrow nights. Credit: NASA
Later this evening and tomorrow as well, there’s a chance that a high-speed stream of particles cut loose from a coronal hole – a open magnetic portal in the sun’s corona that allows electrons and protons to flow freely into space – could kick-start minor auroras at high latitudes. Sometimes that means folks living in southern Canada and along the U.S. northern border can see them too.
You’ll find no lack of sunspot groups on the sun today. This photo was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory this afternoon at 12:15 p.m. CST. Moderate solar flares are possible from Region 1944 (just entering the disk) and departing 1936. Credit: NASA
The sun has recently been more active with an M-class flare yesterday from the 1936 group and the potential for more. Be on the lookout this evening and next for a small display. With little to no moon in the sky, these are good times to look for auroras.
Now on to 2014 and a brand new host of celestial offerings. For the record, the majority of events listed are western hemisphere-centric and visible with the naked eye or binoculars. Times and dates are Central Standard or Central Daylight as noted. Clear skies!
1 – The very first day of the year offers the opportunity for North American observers to break their personal “youngest crescent moon” record. The moon will be just 12 hours old from the Midwest and 14 hour from the West Coast.
Watch for meteors from the Quadrantid shower before dawn on Jan. 3. Credit: John Chumack
3 – The peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower with a sharp maximum occurring at 1:30 p.m. (CST) on 1/3. Best time for viewing from North America will be 5-6:30 a.m. Jan. 3. The evening crescent moon will not interfere; eastern hemisphere skywatchers will have a dark sky at peak.
5 – Jupiter at opposition to the sun in Gemini and closest and brightest for the year. The planet rises at sunset and stays up all night. Great time for telescope viewing!
11 – Venus passes between the Earth and sun at inferior conjunction. For a week on either side of this date, you can see the planet as an exceedingly thin crescent in the daytime sky.
14 – Venus reappears very low in the eastern dawn sky 30 minutes before sunrise about this time
31 – Mercury at greatest elongation east of the sun and well-placed for viewing during evening twilight. Joined by a very thin crescent moon this day.
14 – Give that special someone a big kiss under tonight’s Valentine’s Day full moon
26 – Spectacular close conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus at dawn as seen from Europe and Africa. The two will be separated by only 0.3 degrees.
10 – The waxing gibbous moon occults the 3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for North America this evening.
Demonstration and path of the Erigone occultation of Regulus
20 – Asteroid 167 Erigone occults the bright star Regulus for observers living in a 45-mile-wide (72 km) band from New York City into Ontario, Canada. For those in the center of the path, Regulus will blank out for 12 seconds. The whole event will be easily visible with the naked eye. More information HERE.
20 – Spring (vernal equinox) begins in the northern hemisphere at 11:57 a.m. (CST)
Ganymede and Io will cast their shadows on Jupiter’s cloud tops for North and South American skywatchers on March 23. Credit: Created with Claude Duplessis Meridian software
21 – Saturn and the waning gibbous moon in close conjunction only 0.3 degrees apart as seen from Europe and Africa. Western hemisphere observers will see them about 3 degrees apart.
22 – Venus reaches greatest elongation of 47 degrees west of the sun in the morning sky. Despite its great separation from the sun, the planet will stand only about 15 degrees high at sunrise from mid-northern latitudes.
23 – Double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Io and Ganymede occurs from about 9:10-35 p.m. CDT. Easy to see in a small telescope.
8 – Mars at opposition and closest to the Earth since 2008. March-April will be the best time to observe the planet, when it’s up all night in the constellation Virgo near the bright star Spica and shining at magnitude -1.5, nearly as bright as Sirius.
The first of two total lunar eclipse in 2014 happens overnight April 15-16. Credit: NASA
15 – Total eclipse of the moon! The moon slips into Earth’s inner shadow starting at 12:58 a.m. CDT with maximum eclipse at 2:46 a.m. More information HERE.
15 – Asteroid Vesta at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 5.5. It should be easily visible with the naked eye from a dark sky site.
22 – Peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower this morning with rates of 10-20 meteors per hour. Look to the south in wee hours before dawn. Some interference from the last quarter moon.
29 – Annular solar eclipse visible from Australia, the Southern Indian Ocean and Antarctica. More information HERE.
6 – Early morning peak of the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower with rates of around 30 per hour. Each flash represents the burn-up of a small crumb left by Halley’s Comet.
10 – Saturn at opposition and brightest and closest for the year shining at magnitude 0. The rings will be inclined some 22 degrees to our line of sight, almost wide open. The planet will appear noticeably “out of round” in binoculars and present a beautiful sight in any size telescope.
24 - Possible big-time meteor shower from comet 209P/LINEAR when Earth passes through dust trails it deposited a century ago. Expect a peak between 2-3 a.m. (CST) with rates of 100+ per hour possible. No interference from the morning crescent moon.
25 – Mercury at greatest elongation east of the sun and easily visible low in the northwestern sky during evening twilight for observers in mid-northern latitudes.
3 – Triple shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Callisto, Europa and Ganymede from 18:05 – 19:44 Greenwich time. Eastern Europe is favored. Not visible from the U.S.
21 – Start of summer (summer solstice) in the northern hemisphere at 12:51 a.m. CDT
Venus and the thin crescent at dawn on June 24. Stellarium
21 and for several days around this time – The International Space Station remains in sunlight throughout its orbit for northern hemisphere observers allowing us to see it on multiple passes throughout the night.
24 – Close conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus at dawn. With the moon so close you can use it to spot the planet even after sunrise.
5 – First quarter moon and Mars in conjunction less than a degree apart at dusk.
5 – Asteroids Ceres and Vesta – targets of NASA’s Dawn Mission – are less than 1/5 degree apart in Virgo during early evening hours. A rare event!
12 – The first of three “Super Moons” of 2014. The moon reaches perigee, closest to Earth, only 21 hours before it’s full and will appear slightly larger than a typical full moon.
29 – Peak of the annual Delta Aquarid meteor shower with a maximum of 20 per hour after midnight.
10 – Biggest Full Moon of the year! The moon turns full at 1:09 p.m. CDT. Nine minutes earlier it will have arrived at its closest point to Earth in 2014 of 221,765 miles (356,896 km).
12-13 – Peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower with rates of around 60-80 per hour. Spoiled this year by a bright moon just two days past full.
Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium
18 – Spectacular close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the morning sky. They’ll be just 1/4 degree apart as seen from Europe and slightly wider by the time the pair rises for North and South American observers.
23 – Beautiful grouping of the thin crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus in the morning sky
25 – Mars and Saturn just 3.4 degrees apart in conjunction in the evening sky
27 – Comet C/2013 Oukaimeden should be within reach of binoculars in the morning sky near Orion.
29 – Neptune at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 7.8 in Aquarius
5 – Venus passes just 0.7 degrees north of Leo’s brightest star Regulus this morning in the east before sunrise.
8 – The final Super Moon of 2014 occurs 22 hours after perigee
22 – First day of fall (autumnal equinox) begins at 9:29 p.m. CDT in the northern hemisphere
Diagram show the moon’s path through Earth inner umbral shadow during the Oct. 8 total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA
7 – Uranus at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 5.7 in Pisces
8 – Total eclipse of the moon, the second visible from the U.S. this year. Partial eclipse begins at 4:15 a.m. CDT with totality occurring from 5:25 – 6:24 a.m. Only the East Coast will miss a small portion of this eclipse. More information HERE.
19 – Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring encounters Mars. It will pass close enough that the coma may envelop the planet with a potential meteor storm to boot. Mars will be 151 million miles from Earth at the time and located in the constellation Ophiuchus and visible low in the southwestern sky at dusk.
18 – Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS should be nearing peak brightness of magnitude 5.5. Mid-northern latitude observers can watch for it low in the southern sky in Puppis before dawn.
22 – The annual Orionid meteor shower peaks this morning with up to 25 meteors per hour visible. With the moon a day before new, dark skies will rule.
Diagram showing the visibility of the Oct. 23 partial solar eclipse. Credit: NASA
23 – Partial solar eclipse visible across the U.S. and Canada during late afternoon hours. At maximum for the central U.S. about half the sun will be covered by the moon. Click HERE for more information.
1 – Mercury reaches greatest elongation west of the sun and shines brightly at magnitude -0.5 in the morning sky for skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes. Best morning appearance of the year.
17 – Peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. This year is an off-year for the Leonids with only 10-15 meteors visible per hour. Glare from the thick waning crescent moon will interfere somewhat.
7 – Double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io occurs from 10:18 – 10:27 p.m. CST. They shadows will be on exactly opposite sides of the planet.
14 – Peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the richest and most reliable meteor showers with rates topping 100 per hour. Expect maximum activity overnight Dec. 13-14. Some interference from the last quarter moon after midnight.
21 – Start of winter (winter solstice) at 5:03 p.m. CST
If you know of an important event that I may have missed, please drop me a line at email@example.com
Ornament hanging from a Christmas tree? Cassini peers up at Saturn’s south polar region from 44 degrees beneath the ring plane last July. The black, curved stripes are the shadows of the rings on the planet’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL
Merry Christmas everyone! It’s been a joy to share the sky with you the past year. Thank you for sharing your comments, observations and photos. I hope this day finds you with family, friends and maybe even the stars.
We’ll soon step into a brand new year filled with eclipses – two lunars and a partial solar – an extremely close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, a Mars opposition and much more. In a couple days I’ll have a complete month-by-month list of upcoming astronomical highlights.
Seen from STEREO-B, Earth, Jupiter and Venus line up inside a 2-degree-wide circle in conjunction on Dec. 24. Jupiter and the Earth were especially close – just 0.4 degrees or slightly less than one full width apart. Credit: NASA
Did you know that today the Earth is in conjunction with Venus and Jupiter today? Too bad you have to floating in outer space to see it. NASA’s STEREO-B probe, which looks back toward Earth from the opposite side of the sun, photographed a very compact grouping of the three worlds on Christmas Eve.
The three planets early this Christmas morning as seen by STEREO-B. Credit: NASA
Today they’re still very close with Jupiter practically on top of Venus. Coincidentally, a similar near-overlap of the two planets (as seen from Earth) on June 17, 2 B.C. was one possibility for the famed Star of Bethlehem we explored in yesterday’s blog.
The three Magi depicted in the Hortus Deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg in 1185 AD.
We’ll never know for sure what “star” the Magi saw when they set off from Babylon to Jerusalem seeking their newborn king, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering whether it might have had a natural cause. There are many possible explanations, a few of which we’ll explore here.
“For we have seen His star in the East (upon rising) and have come to worship him” reads the biblical account of the Three Wise Men. After meeting with King Herod, they rode south to Bethlehem:
“… and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”
Precious little more was written about the star. If the Three Kings’ account had only mentioned a constellation or nearby star for reference, we could have narrowed down the possibilities. We do know the Magi’s general direction of travel and the accepted time frame of Christ’s birth between the years 7 and 2 B.C.
Bethlehem is 5.5 miles south of Jerusalem, where the Three Kings met with King Herod sometime around his death in 4 B.C.
We also know that whatever they saw moved from east to south. First visible in the east, the “star” next appeared over Bethlehem, located 5.5 miles (9 km) south of Jerusalem. As the Magi rode from Jerusalem they would have seen the apparition in the southern sky. Let’s now explore the possibilities:
* Meteors I think we can rule out meteors or their brilliant cousins, fireballs, because they’re too brief a phenomenon, and the Kings saw the apparition on at least two occasions. Meteors also don’t “rise” but streak across the sky from any direction.
Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski’s Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668). Comets in the past were often described as “hanging” over a location much like the ”star” of Bethlehem, but were typically seen as augurs of doom.
Halley’s Comet would have been a bright naked eye sight in Gemini in the east before dawn in late August 12 B.C. and again in the northwestern evening sky in September. A tempting possibility but the time frame is wrong – too early for Christ’s birth.
But another comet recorded in the Book of Hanwas observed within the correct time frame by Chinese astronomers in 5 B.C.:
“Second year of the Chien-p’ing reign period, second month (5 B.C., March 9-April 6), a suibsing (tailed comet) appeared at Ch’ien-niu for over 70 days.”
The comet first appeared in the constellation Capricornus, which would have been visible in the eastern sky before dawn from the Middle East in early spring. Assuming it came into view just after perihelion (closest approach to the sun), it would have traveled to the west and into the southern sky roughly within the time frame required for the Wise Men to travel from the Babylon to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem.
Or the comet could have been seen in the east before perihelion and then crossed over into the west-southwestern evening sky as a brilliant post-perihelion sight. The Bible also mentions “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” at the time of the birth. This points to spring as being the likely season, the same as the comet’s period of visibility.
This almost sounds like an open and shut case except for a niggling detail. Comets were generally seen in ancient cultures as omens of doom and gloom, not bringers of good news like the birth of a new king. Comets scared people because they came out of nowhere and crossed the sky in unpredictable ways. To this day a bright comet’s appearance still stirs fears of impending catastrophe in some.
* Nova or supernova
A bright nova (temporary brightening of a white dwarf in a binary star system as it “feeds” on gas from its companion) or supernova would attract the attention of many. Most remain bright for weeks or months. Credit: creekandcave.com
Exploding stars are great candidates because they fit the description of a star, and in the case of a supernova, can appear as brilliant as Jupiter or Venus. That would certainly get the attention of the oriental astrologers, who kept a vigilant eye on the heavens waiting for the ancient prophecy of a “star” in Israel to be fulfilled.
Because of Earth’s revolution around the sun it’s even possible for a “new star” to appear first in one direction and then be visible a couple months later in another, especially if you factor in time of night. Unfortunately there are no records of novas or supernovas by the super-observant Chinese or anyone else occurring during the time frame.
* Conjunctions of bright planets
The western sky at the end of evening twilight on Feb. 25, 6 B.C. would have displayed a striking gathering of the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. All three were within 7 degrees of each other. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Conjunctions occur when two or more bright celestial objects line up closely in the sky. A conjunction of two planets is not that unusual, but a gathering of three is and may have held great symbolic value in ancient times. One such triple conjunction involving Mars, Jupiter and Saturn took place in at dusk in the constellation Pisces on February 25, 6 B.C. Could this have inspired the Magi to begin their westward journey?
On Feb. 20, five days before the symmetrical gathering of planets , a very young evening crescent moon passed through the group. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Five days earlier the three were nearly as close and joined by a young crescent moon, an even more auspicious sight.
Of course there are problems with this scenario. The planets appeared in the western sky and the arrangement and number of planets visible would have changed months later when the kings rode to Bethlehem.
An amazing three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn from late May to early December 7 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
A recurring conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn played out between May and December in 7 B.C. when the two planets were separated by just one degree (two full moon diameters) on three occasions in the constellation Pisces. The first close pass took place in the eastern morning sky on May 29; the second on Sept. 30 (southern evening sky) and the final pairing on Dec. 5, also in the southern evening sky.
A bright planet duo over so many months rates as an eye-catcher and the directions fit the bill, but the Magi described the object as a brilliant star, not a pair of stars. Even though a degree is a relatively small distance, it would have been easy to see them as two separate objects.
Venus and Jupiter just 0.6 arc minute apart – merged into one – on June 17, 2 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
That brings us to the dual conjunctions of the two brightest planets of all – Jupiter and Venus – in the eastern sky at dawn from the Middle East on August 12, 3 B.C. and again 10 months later on Jun 17, 2 B.C. On both occasions astrologers would have watched the two planets come so close together they would have briefly merged into one before separating again.
OK, a keen eye might have separated the pair on August 12 when they were 2/5 of a moon diameter (12 arc minutes) apart, but they would have been far too tight on June 17 – just 0.6 arc minutes – for anything but a good pair of binoculars or telescope to split them.
During the first conjunction, the Magi would have seen this brilliant pairing in the eastern sky; on June 17 the following year, they lit up the western sky.
Despite appearing as a solitary brilliant “star”, this conjunction would not have been seen in the southern sky on a journey to Bethlehem but in the west, unless we interpret the direction implied in the Bible passage more broadly.
So what’s your pleasure? My best guesses for the Bethlehem Star are the Chinese comet of 4 B.C. or the pair of Jupiter-Venus conjunctions in 3 and 2 B.C. Or it could have been a succession of events – multiple conjunctions and a comet – that led the Magi to conclude that the prophecy of Christ’s birth would soon be fulfilled.
There’s another possibility – the supernatural. But that takes us outside the realm of science. Either way, the star remains a mystery, since we’ll never know for sure what caught the eye of the Three Wise Men as they scanned the heavens looking for signs of what would come.