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Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The Star of Bethlehem and Astronomy....

Many of the world's religions, both current and historical, have connections with things astronomical. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the earth's ancient people all observed the same sky full of awe-inspiring objects. It is no wonder,then, that stars play an important role in many religions and to Christians, the Star of Bethlehem is the best-known example.

Although we have little historical information about the Star (only two sentences in the Book of Matthew refer to it) hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles have been written on possible astronomical interpretations of the event. In fact, the December, 2007, issue of Sky and Telescope magazine contained an article by an astronomy student at Michigan State University, Aaron Adair, that summarizes nicely the various theories. His conclusions may surprise you.

Some proposed explanations, such as ball lightning or meteors, never gained acceptance. More popular theories include comets, novae (stars that "flare up") or planetary alignments, but Adair argues "a closer examination finds severe weaknesses in all of these."

The comet hypothesis does not seem plausible because comets were most often regarded as omens of evil. A nova or supernova could have been bright enough and lasted long enough to guide the Magi to Jerusalem. But a nova or supernovae would have been recorded by observers in the Far East and no such reports have been found. Also, it is difficult to imagine a comet or supernova behaving as described in the Scriptures.

One of the most popular explanations involves what is known as a planetary conjunction, a gathering of two or more planets in the same area of the sky. With modern planetarium software, we can easily recreate these events at the exact time and position in which they occurred. One such example is the very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter near the star Regulus in the constellation Leo on June 17, 2 B.C. This explanation assumes Leo is the constellation representing Judea at that time, but scholars do not agree on this point.

Planetary conjunctions, however, usually had astrological meanings and Adair makes a good argument that Jesus' Jewish followers probably would not have heeded the warnings of astrologers.

Another recent "explanation" was put forth by Michael Molnar in his 1999 book "The Star of Bethlehem." On April 17, 6 B.C., the Moon occulted (passed in front of) the planet Jupiter. He argues this could have been interpreted as a good sign that later became the Star. Unfortunately, evidence suggests an occultation such as this would have predicted a King's death! Equally unfortunate is the fact that the occultation took place in the daytime and would not have been visible to the Magi.

Adair, who is also a show presenter at the Abrams Planetarium at MSU, offers an alternate viewpoint at the end of his article. Since all of the astronomical "explanations" have serious flaws, perhaps we should rely on faith in this case. To read comments on the article go to-

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Winter Solstice

Just to say the Winter Solstice arrived yesterday (Sunday 21st December) at 12.04 U.T so light a candle on the Yule log....

Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling

Solstice Meteor Shower

Space Weather News for Dec. 21, 2008

URSID METEORS: Earth is passing through a stream of debris from comet 8P/Tuttle and this is causing the annual Ursid meteor shower.  Forecasters expect the Ursids to peak on Dec. 22nd with 8 to 10 meteors per hour flying out of the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper) not far from the north star.  The display is usually mild, but outbursts of Ursids occasionally surprise observers with rates many times normal. The last time this happened was in 2006.

Standing outdoors to watch Ursids in December can be a chilling experience. So why not stay inside and listen? is broadcasting live audio from the Air Force Space Surveillance Radar in Texas. When a meteor passes over the facility--"ping"--there is an echo. Because the Ursid radiant is circumpolar (always up) over the radar, the echoes may be heard at any hour, night or day. Tune in to to try the audio feed, which can support 1000 simultaneous listeners.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Ring in the Solstice Bells at Christmas.....

In the Bleak Midwinter...

Merry Christmas...
Crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter....

Crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter...

Crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter...

Crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter...

Red Cross...

Gnarled Branches...

A Large City at Christmas...

Friday, 12 December 2008

Weekend Meteor Shower

Space Weather News for Dec. 12, 2008

WEEKEND METEORS: Earth is entering a stream of debris from extinct comet 3200 Phaethon, and this is causing the annual Geminid meteor shower.  The shower is expected to peak on Dec. 13th and 14th.  Normally, as many as 100 meteors per hour shoot out of the constellation Gemini, but this year a bright Moon will interfere with the display, reducing hourly counts to only 20 or so. That's could still be a nice show.  For best results, watch the sky from 10 pm local time on Saturday night (Dec 13th) until dawn on Sunday morning (Dec. 14th).

BIGGEST FULL MOON OF THE YEAR:  The Moon that's causing trouble for the Geminid display happens to be biggest full Moon of 2008, as much as 14% wider and 30% brighter than lesser Moons we've seen earlier this year. An astronomer would say this is a "perigee Moon" because it occurs at perigee, the side of the Moon's elliptical orbit closest to Earth. Go outside tonight and take a look.  The meteor rate may be low, but the lunar beauty index is off the charts.

Check for updates and more information.

BONUS:  The Dec. 1st Great Conjunction Photo Gallery continues to grow with daily additions from around the world.  Start browsing here:

Friday, 5 December 2008

Stunning Sky During the Early December Evenings

Space Weather News for Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

When the sun goes down, step outside and look south.  Beaming through the twilight is one of the prettiest things you'll ever see--a tight three-way conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon. The event is visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities.  People in New York and Hong Kong will see it just as clearly as astronomers watching from remote mountaintops. Only cloudy weather or a midnight sun (sorry Antarctica!) can spoil the show.

The great conjunction offers something extra to Europeans. For more than an hour on Monday evening, the crescent Moon will actually eclipse Venus. Astronomers call such an event a "lunar occultation." Venus emerging from the dark edge of the Moon is a remarkably beautiful sight.  Sky watchers across Europe will be able to see this happen.

Visit for photos, webcasts and more information.