If you’re looking for a little holiday magic in the air tonight, just turn your eyes to the sky. There you’ll see Jupiter and Saturn closer to each other than they’ve been in centuries, shining together to form what’s been nicknamed the “Christmas Star” — not just because it’s appearing so close to the holiday, but because some astronomers believe this could be the same “star” that the wise men saw over Bethlehem the night Jesus was born.
Although not technically a star, the positions of these planets (which has also been dubbed “the Great Conjunction”) promises to twinkle brightly in the night sky, making for a brilliant sight — and a once-in-a-lifetime event for avid stargazers or just regular folks like us.
“Alignments between [Jupiter and Saturn] are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another,” Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan said in a statement. “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.”
December 21 is also the Winter Solstice — the longest night of the year. The solstice marks the beginning of the sun’s return to the Northern Hemisphere, with the sun setting just a little bit later every evening through June. The timing of the Christmas Star’s appearance tonight is just a coincidence, NASA astronomers say.
How to See the ‘Christmas Star’
Want to step outside and experience this rare interstellar event for yourself? All you need is an unobstructed vista and, for the best view, a pair of binoculars or a telescope.
Jupiter will be the easiest to spot, as it will shine bright in the southwestern sky, just above the horizon. Look for Saturn slightly above and to the left of the larger planet — weather permitting. If the night is clear, you’ll be able to see the ‘Christmas Star’ for about an hour just after the sun sets.
What if it’s cloudy where you are? Go online and view it via the Virtual Telescope Project livestream!
We could all use a little break from holiday prep right about now. This is the perfect excuse to spend a little time gazing at the stars, preferably with a glass of wine (or your beverage of choice) in hand — gold, frankincense, and myrrh optional.