Posts Tagged ‘Planetary conjunctions’

12/19/2022 – Ephemeris – Hunting for the Star of Bethlehem: What it wasn’t

December 19, 2022 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for Monday, December 19th. Today the Sun will be up for 8 hours and 48 minutes, setting at 5:04, and it will rise tomorrow at 8:16. The Moon, 3 days past last quarter, will rise at 4:59 tomorrow morning.

In these last days before Christmas, I’d like to explore what in the sky could have been the Star of Bethlehem from an astronomical point of view. If it had to do with the arrangement of planets, tracing back two thousand years would be simple. If it was some sudden appearance of an actual star or comet, we would have to rely on contemporary accounts. Those would have to come from the Chinese and Koreans. The state of astronomy around the Mediterranean and the Middle East was pretty stagnant due to the fact that they thought that the heavens were perfect and changeless, so things like comets and novae or “New Stars” meant change, so were not really part of the heavens. So we must look for something more mundane.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EST, UT –5 hours). They may be different for your location.


Probably the first person to kick off the search for the Star of Bethlehem was Johannes Kepler. (These are slides from this year’s Searching for the Star of Bethlehem presentation I gave to the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society. The captions are from the text of the presentation)

Johannes Kepler

The search for the Star really started with Johannes Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630. He was an astronomer, although he cast horoscopes for the odd prince or duke, which is how he made a living. His mother was even charged for being a witch, but nothing came of it. And after much trial and error discovered his Three Laws of Planetary Motion. His story is a fascinating one.

Kepler's Nova on a star chart of the time

Kepler also discovered a supernova, the last one seen in the Milky Way. This is an old star chart that records Kepler’s Star,
a supernova, or super bright new star, he discovered on October 9, 1604. I colored it yellow and have an arrow pointed to it, in Ophiuchus’ right ankle.

Kepler's Nova as recreated in Stellarium

Here is a Stellarium recreation of the sky the night of his discovery. It’s the southwestern sky near the end of evening twilight, October 9, 1604, the night Kepler discovered the supernova that bears his name. It got him to thinking, could a similar grouping of a nova and planets be the Star of Bethlehem?
He knew of no nova being reported back then, though no one in the western world probably would have. That would be a change in the officially changeless heavens, so it couldn’t possibly have been a real heavenly object. And being the mathematical genius he was, (he did discover the Three Laws of Planetary Motion), found a very interesting conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, with Mars piling on later, that occurred in 7 BCE. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)