'Christmas Star:' A rare sighting amid the pandemic | Inquirer News

‘Christmas Star:’ A rare sighting amid the pandemic

By: - Content Researcher Writer / @inquirerdotnet
/ 05:07 PM December 21, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — December, without a doubt, is the most festive month of the year for Filipinos. Well-preserved traditions such as Simbang Gabi, house-to-house caroling, and Noche Buena celebrations with the family are just part of most Filipinos’ lives during the holiday season.


But the pandemic happened.

Restrictions imposed in the country to stem the spread of COVID-19 affected these time-old traditions. Since the start of the year, we have been doing our best to avoid the disease, so much so that some have decided to postpone their annual plans during Christmas.


Still, despite the global health pandemic putting our lives – especially during the holiday seasons – to a standstill, it seems like we can still feel the holiday spirit with a sighting of a “Christmas star” or the “Star of Bethlehem” on Monday night – which is also the longest night of the year.

What is the ‘Christmas Star’

In the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star appeared in the night sky and guided the three wise men on their way to the stable where Jesus Christ was born.

“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was,” Matthew chapter 2 verse 9 reads.

For astronomers, the bright sighting is a rare astrological phenomenon known as the “Great Conjunction” where Jupiter catches up with Saturn during planets’ orbital rotations.

“A conjunction happens when planets appear incredibly close to one another in the sky because they line up with Earth in their respective orbits,” the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (DOST-PAGASA) said in an infographic presented during a virtual presser on Monday.

According to Mario Raymundo, Chief of the Astronomical Observation and Time Service Unit at DOST-PAGASA, great conjunctions are called “great” for being the rarest and one of the brightest and closest on average of the conjunction between “naked eye” planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).

“Yung [conjunction ng] Jupiter and Saturn, meron pong period ito na mga 20 years ay nauulit. Ito pong conjunction ay nakita ito noong year 2000. [After] 20 years, naulit na naman po itong conjunction of planets. Ito ay very rare sapagkat ito ay masyadong malapit,” he said.


(The conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn happens every 20 years. It was last seen in 2000. After 20 years, it happened again this year in 2020. This is very rare because the planets are too close to each other.)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also explained that the phenomenon is rare because”[i]t’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this “great conjunction.”

Based on data presented by Raymundo, this year’s conjunction will have a proximity of six arc minutes. It is close to the conjunction that occurred on March 5, 1226 and July 16, 1623 which both have the proximity of 5 arc minutes between Jupiter and Saturn.

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Photos courtesy of DOST-Pagasa

He added that it is expected to occur again in 2080, 2417 and 2477. However, the “most rarest” conjunction between the two planets will be on Christmas Day in 2874, where both planets will be at two arc minutes apart.

“Some have suggested this holiday season that these two planets might be a replica of the legendary Star of Bethlehem. Actually, one of the more popular theories for the “Christmas Star” was a series of conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. For in that year, Jupiter and Saturn met not once but three times in May, September, and December,” said Raymundo.

“If you consider a very close conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn as a “Christmas Star,” you’ll find our two planets will scrunch even closer together on December 25 in the year 2874,” he continued.

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Photos courtesy of DOST-Pagasa

What is the significance of this phenomenon? 

“Ang significance nito ay natapat lang kasi, napakaganda ng pagkakataon na magkatapat ang winter soltice at conjunction of planets at bago mag Pasko. It happened na natapat lang sa December ang conjunction of planets na pwede i-correlate by history na sinasabi nilang ito ang Christmas Star. It’s up to them,” said Raymundo.

(The significance of this is that the conjunction of planets coincided with the winter solstice and is near Christmas. It happened in December and it can be correlated by history to the Christmas Star. It’s up to them.)

He explained that the occurrence could be explained differently depending on the point of view of Christian beliefs and as an astronomer.

“Kasi sa Christianity, sa belief ng Christianity, ito ay milagro, it’s a sign. Sa amin sa point of perspective [bilang] isang astronomer, ito ay nangyayari every twenty years kaya lang ang rarest niyan isa ito sa pinaka-rare ang December 2020,” he added.

(In Christian belief, this is a miracle, it’s a sign. For us, astronomers, this happens every twenty years. But this year’s occurrence is one of the rarest.)

“It’s up to them kung paano nila paniniwalaan. It’s a debatable issue. I don’t know which is the right one. Sa astronomy, kung pinaniniwalaan nila na conjunction of planet is Star of Bethlehem, this is the closest one. Ito ang pinakamalapit na representation,” he clarified.

(It’s up to them how they will translate this event. It’s a debatable issue. I don’t know which is the right one. In astronomy, if they think that the conjunction of the planets is the Star of Bethlehem, this is the closest one. This is the closest representation.)

Whether we think of this phenomenon as the Christmas Star or the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, one thing is for sure, we can count this as one of the good things that happened to us amid our year-long struggles during the pandemic.

When is the perfect day and time to observe the Great Conjunction?

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Photos courtesy of DOST-Pagasa

According to Raymundo, the best day to see the single bright light with the naked eye is on Monday night. Meanwhile, those who would use a telescope would be able to see the two distinct planets.

He added that the conjunction would be present until Christmas Day. However, the planets would not be as close as they were on Monday and on Tuesday.

“Kahit hanggang katapusan ng buwan na ito maari natin ito makita pero ang pinaka magandang observation kung saan ang pinaka rarest ay nitong 21,” he explained.

(We can still observe this until the end of the month, but the best day to observe is on 21, which is the rarest.)

He advised that people can view the conjunction between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“Sa mga gustong maka-view ng conjunction of planets, sa naked eye it’s a single point of light, makikita po yan sa Western horizon pag nag-set ang araw more or less mga 5:32 p.m. Makikita ang isang maliwanag na tala o isang maliwanag na bituin. Yan na po ang tinatawag nating planetang Jupiter at Saturn na kung saan more or less nasa 20 degrees from horizon, medyo mataas po yan,” he said.

(For those who want to view the conjunction with the naked eye, it’s a single point of light that can be seen in the Western horizon when the sun sets at around 5:32 p.m. You can see a bright star in the sky. Those are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are more or less located 20 degrees above the horizon.)

“Lulubog ito more or less 7:45 p.m. so pinaka magandang observation time ay 6 o’clock at alas syete,” he added.

(The planets’ altitude will move lower around 7:45 p.m., so the best time to observe is at 6 o’clock and 7 p.m.)

Still, he emphasized that the phenomenon can only be observed with a clear sky.

“Sa tingin ko medyo mazi-zero tayo siguro mamaya dahil sa di magandang panahon. Subalit kung halimbawa di magtagumpay ang Luzon makita ang event na ito, posible po ang Visayas at Mindanao baka sakaling makita nila,” the chief Pagasa astronomer said.

(I think we will [have zero visibility] later due to bad weather. However, even if people in Luzon can’t see this, those in Visayas and Mindanao might possibly observe it.)

“Kagaya ng sinabi ko sa ating mga kababayan sa bandang South, kung gusto nila ma-witness ito ay doon sa may bandang dagat sila magpunta. Pag tapos lumubog ng araw mayroon doong maliwanag na parang tala about twenty-eight to twenty degrees ang altitude,” he added.

(Like what I have been telling people in the South, if they want to witness this, they should head near the seas. After sunset, they will see a bright star which is about twenty-eight to twenty degrees in altitude.)

Raymundo assured that people could still see the conjunction in the subsequent days. [ac]

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TAGS: astronomy, Christmas, Jupiter, NASA, Planets, Saturn
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