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Jupiter and Saturn set to align

Published: 21/12/2020 By The Abode Team

Jupiter and Saturn are set to cross paths in the night sky, appearing to the naked eye as a "double planet". The timing of this conjunction, as the celestial event is known, has caused some to suggest it may have been the source of a bright light in the sky 2,000 years ago that became known as the Star of Bethlehem. The planets are moving closer together each night and will reach their closest point today (the 21st of December). Keen stargazers will have to keep a close eye on the weather to avoid an astronomical disappointment. If there is a gap in the winter gloom, both planets will appear in the southwest sky, just above the horizon shortly after sunset.

Is this the return of the Star of Bethlehem?

Some astronomers and theologians think so. Prof Eric M Vanden Eykel, a professor of religion from Ferrum College in Virginia, says the timing has led to a lot of speculation "about whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible reports led the wise men to Joseph, Mary and the newly born Jesus". That is not just modern, festive speculation. The theory that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn might be the "Star of Wonder" was proposed in the early 17th Century by Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician. "2,000 years ago, people were a lot more aware of what was happening in the night sky," said Dr Crawford, "[so] it's not impossible that the Star of Bethlehem was a planetary alignment like this".

How rare is the event?

As planets cross paths on their journey around the Sun, conjunctions are not particularly rare, but this one is special. "Conjunctions are great things to see - they happen fairly often - but [for the planets to be this close] is quite remarkable," says Prof Tim O'Brien, an astrophysicist from the University of Manchester. The two planets - the largest in the Solar System and some of the brightest objects visible in the night sky - have not been this close to each other in a dark sky for 800 years. They will be setting in the southwest, so you need to take a look as soon as the sky is going dark. "None of us is going to be around in another 400 years, so just keep an eye on the weather and pop outside if you get the chance."