For the first time in 800 years, Saturn and Jupiter will align to make a 'Christmas star'

For the first time in 800 years, Saturn and Jupiter will align to make a 'Christmas star'
Photo by Gage Smith on Unsplash

It was the Middle Ages the last time humans witnessed the brilliant astronomical phenomenon we are about to see.

The planets Jupiter and Saturn align in the sky every 20 years or so, but it's been nearly 800 years since they've been close enough together from Earth's vantage point to create the double planet "star" known as the "Christmas star" or "Star of Bethlehem." This alignment will appear as a bright point of light that stands out starkly in the night sky.

"You'd have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky," Patrick Hartigan, astronomer at Rice University, told Forbes.

The timing of the "Christmas star" being visible just before Christmas will likely prompt comparisons to the nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew in which the three wise men followed a bright star, leading them to baby Jesus. Biblical scholars have debated for centuries whether the star was a symbol in a fable or an actual astronomical event such as the one we will see this month. One theory, which famous German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed, was that the original "Star of Bethlehem" referred to in the Bible could have been an even rarer triple alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus.

Regardless, we are in for our own astronomical treat the week of Christmas.

The peak alignment will occur on December 21, coinciding with the winter solstice. For the best viewing, those of us the Northern Hemisphere can look to the southwestern sky about 45 minutes after sunset that day. However, we should be able to see it throughout the week.

In a year with so much darkness, having the holiday season lit up with a rare star sighting feels like a gift. (Or maybe it's an omen? Nah, let's go with gift.)

And thankfully, humans won't have to wait another 800 years to see it again. The next conjunction of these planets in this way will occur on March 15, 2080, so the youngsters among us might have another chance to witness it. As for the rest of us, we'll have to hope for clear skies the week of December 21 so we can partake in this rare occurrence in all its glory.