If you look up into the night sky during the Christmas period, you will see something rare – a special Christmas star.
To be fair, it is not really a star, but rather what astronomers call “a conjunction of planets”. This is when two planets are so close together in the sky that they appear to be a single bright star. The last time this conjunction happened was more than 800 years ago.
On December 21 (which is also our summer solstice) at around 9pm, if you look out towards the west, you will see this bright ‘star’ just above the horizon. This is the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. This event will be visible from anywhere on the Earth, although the best views are near the equator.
Both planets will be viewable together through binoculars or a telescope. On the solstice night only, both planets and their moons will appear in the same high-magnification telescope’s frame.
Try not to miss it – this event won’t happen again for another few decades and it won’t be at Christmas time either. The two planets won’t be this close to each other again until March 15, 2080, and again sometime in the year 2400.
Some people have speculated that the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ was a special conjunction of three planets: Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. A triple conjunction is extremely rare to witness, and to most people of the time, they would have only seen and marvelled at a bright, new star shining in the heavens.
Also coming up in December is the Geminids meteor shower which peaked on December 13. This is usually a spectacular shower, with an estimated 150 meteors shooting through the sky every hour.
Meteors can be seen for a week or so on each side of the peak. The best time for viewing them would be in the early hours of the morning. While up at that time of the day, take a look at Venus which will be hanging around in the East at around 5am.
If you’re gifting a telescope or binoculars this holiday season, consider giving it in advance of this unique astronomical occasion.
With all the hubbub of the festive season, try and make the time to go out and marvel at the universe.
On behalf of the Hibiscus Coast Astronomical Society, I would like to wish you all a joyous festive season and a prosperous year to come.