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Tracking the Star of Bethlehem


Andrew Yee, astronomer
December 23, 2012 — During the holidays, many of us like to tell Christmas stories and there's a biblical story that involves a star. What is the Star of Bethlehem, exactly?


The Star of Bethlehem may have been a comet or a supernova (courtesy: Ben Earwicker / www.garrisonphoto.org)
The Star of Bethlehem may have been a comet or a supernova (courtesy: Ben Earwicker / www.garrisonphoto.org)

In Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem is said to have led the Magi (also called the three wise men) to baby Jesus in Bethlehem on Christmas. 

Biblical scholars and astronomers aren't sure if the Christmas Star, also referred to as the Star of Bethlehem is real, largely due to timing.

Some scholars say that Jesus was born between 7 BC and 1 BC, making it difficult to pinpoint when the star was visible in the sky.

One theory is that the star was actually a comet.

Chinese and Korean records also indicated a comet appearance -- but one year apart, and in two separate locations. Astronomers aren't sure which of the two records is correct.

Another theory is that it could have been a supernova.

This phenomenon appears when a massive star ends its life in a catastrophic explosion that blows itself apart.

The explosion would look like a "new" star in the sky that could outshine the combined light of the rest of the stars in a galaxy.

Physicist Frank Tipler proposed that a faint but observable supernova in neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy could be noticeable to Magi as an extra star in the sky, which would have resembled a hazy patch to the unaided eye.

A prominent close pairing of Jupiter and Saturn, along with a faint supernova, surely would have captured the attention of Magi.

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