On December 21, 2020, the planets Jupiter and Saturn will be visible from the earth, and will be so close together they’ll appear as one celestial object. Astronomers call this event the Great Conjunction, but its timing has many embracing it as the “Christmas Star.”
While Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions happen every 20 years, in 2020 the planets are expected to be the closest they have been since the Middle Ages. This Great Conjunction will be visible by the naked eye and appear as the brightest object in the sky. When this happens, the planets will be just 0.1 degrees apart, according to astronomy.com.
Jupiter and Saturn will be so close that you will be able to fit them both in the same telescopic field of view. That’s an incredibly rare occurrence. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were this close together was in 1226 A.D., at a time when Genghis Khan was conquering large swaths of Asia, and Europe was still generations away from the Renaissance.astronomy.com
December 21, the day the Great Conjunction will occur, is also the northern hemisphere’s darkest day, with the shortest amount of daylight—winter solstice.
The Star of Bethlehem
Because of the conspicuous timing and the incredible brightness the two large planets aligning create, it’s no wonder this astronomical event is known as the Christmas Star or the Star of Bethlehem.
In Matthew 2, we read about wise men from eastern lands asking about the newborn king of the Jews. They had seen a star and travelled to Jerusalem in search of the Saviour.
From the familiar nativity story we know the star leads these wise men to Bethlehem and they find Jesus, worship Him and give Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:9-11).
Over the years there have been many theories as to what these wise men saw. Was it a star, or some other celestial event? Did the wise men see the Great Conjunction, or something else like a comet or supernova?
Canadian Astrophysicist and Christian apologist Hugh Ross says all explanations for the Bethlehem Star should be considered speculative. In his article called The Christmas Star, Ross says the passage in Matthew is the only known account of the wise men seeing a star, so no conclusive argument can be made about what they actually saw.
However, the most important point of the story is its illustration of the hope the magi placed in the promised Messiah.
Regardless of whether the magi saw this same planetary conjunction that we will witness, imagining the awe and wonder they must have experienced when seeing such a unique event in the sky is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit.
How to See the Christmas Star
Throughout December, Jupiter will be easy to spot in the night sky. It shines brighter than any star and Saturn, although not as bright, will be visibly adjacent.
When the Great Conjunction happens, you will not need a telescope or binoculars to see the Christmas Star in real time. However, to see Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s rings you will need some sort of observation equipment.
For the best viewing of the Christmas Star, look to the sky within a three or four-hour window beginning at 7:04 p.m. Eastern Time. On the West Coast, astronomy.com says a shadow from Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, will be visible on Jupiter’s cloud tops at 6:40 p.m. Pacific Time.
For a virtual experience, set a reminder for this livestream from courtesy of Lowell Observatory.