Astronomers call the apparent alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, the largest planets in our solar system, a great conjunction, an event that happens every 20 years. But a great conjunction in the night sky like this year’s hasn’t been seen in almost 800 years! The 2020 great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was the closest since 1623 (when the planets were obscured by the sun) and the closest observable since 1226; a similar sight won’t occur again until March 15, 2080.
This year’s great conjunction also occurred on the Winter Solstice just a few nights before Christmas. Is it possible that the original Christmas star, the Star of Bethlehem, might also have been a great conjunction? The gospel of Matthew tells how the Magi, or Wise Men, were led by the star from the east to the town of Bethlehem where the Christ child was born. These men were likely some kind of Persian astrologers who looked to the heavens for signs, and it’s possible they knew of the Jewish prophecy of the Messiah. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Magi were looking to the sky or that they interpreted an astrological event as the sign of the birth of a great ruler. And why wouldn’t God, the Creator of the Heavens, announce the birth of His Son in a way the Magi would understand? The Wise Men went first to Jerusalem where they asked King Herod where they could find the child who had been “born king of the Jews?” Herod knew nothing of this king before their visit, but he unwittingly set multiple prophecies into motion after learning of the child’s birth from the Wise Men.
But was the Star of Bethlehem an actual celestial object, or something supernatural? I think it could be both. The appearance of the star called the magi from the east, but the text does not say that the star appeared continuously. In fact, the text seems to say that the star re-appeared to the Wise Men after the left Jerusalem.
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, 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.” (Matthew 2:9-10)
Johannes Kepler, who first correctly explained the motion of the planets, calculated in 1603 (during a year he observed a great conjunction) that a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC. A triple conjunction occurs when the perspective of alignment from our point of view causes the planets to appear to go backwards for some weeks. This retrograde motion can cause two or, in the case of the year 7 BC, three conjunctions in the same year. Perhaps this is the event witnessed by the three Wise Men who then made a long journey to Jerusalem and were then led to the home of the child by an angel of the Lord after their visit to Herod.
Recent astronomical research by Colin Nicholl suggests that the Biblical star was a great comet. I think this explanation seems more likely because a great conjunction, even a triple, is not that impressive.
From a photography perspective, capturing these photographs of the great conjunction was a rewarding challenge. Earlier this year I completely missed comet Neowise. It was visible for at least a couple of weeks, but the closest I came to seeing it was catching a glimpse of the tail as it disappeared behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains. My friend Scot and I tried to catch the comet on other nights, but the clouds were in the way every night. Fortunately, we had better luck on December 21st when I met up with Scot on the side of Highway 12 after driving for five hours from Amarillo.
We had perfect conditions with absolutely clear skies, no wind, and not too cold. The half moon was also directly overhead which provided enough light that we were able to capture some detail in the landscape. Finding the right settings and focal length, not to mention trying to focus on the distant planets in the dark, was a real challenge and involved a lot of experimentation with exposure time, aperture settings, and ISO. Unfortunately, I mistakenly put my camera into JPG mode with an unacceptable white balance setting and did not realize this mistake for much of the time the conjunction was visible above the horizon. Fortunately, I did catch the mistake and was able to capture a few good raw images just in time. We stopped at the Gap on the way back to Cuchara to get a photo of Orion rising above the West Spanish Peak.