Alexandra Pope, staff writer
December 25, 2011 — Astronomer Andrew Yee explains the possible origin of one of the most recognizable yet mysterious symbols of Christmas.
Christians around the world recognize the Christmas Star or Star of Bethlehem as the miraculous sign that guided the Three Wise Men or Magi to Jesus' birthplace.
But what was the Star of Bethlehem? According to astronomer Andrew Yee, there is some debate about the nature of the celestial object associated with the event.
Historians don't know for sure the month or year of Jesus' birth, so there are a number of possible explanations for the bright star.
“Biblical scholars think Jesus was born in between 7 BC and 1 BC, so working in this timeframe, there are some celestial events that could be considered candidates for the Christmas Star,” he explains.
One is a comet -- a chapel in Padova, Italy contains a fresco showing a comet in the sky above the Holy Family.
Chinese and Korean astronomical records indicate a comet was visible in the sky in the spring of 4 or 5 BC, but time and location discrepancies make that comet an unlikely contender.
Another possible explanation is a supernova -- the explosive death of a massive star.
“The light from a supernova would outshine all the other stars in the galaxy,” Yee says.
There may have been a faint supernova in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in 7 BC that caught the attention of the Magi.
Another interesting theory is that instead of a single 'Star,' the Magi actually witnessed a close grouping of two or more celestial objects. For example, in 7 BC, Jupiter and Saturn appeared very close together in the sky at three different points during the year -- a very rare conjunction of those two planets.
In the spring of 6 BC, Jupiter also appeared very close to the moon, but that conjunction occurred in the morning sky and would have been difficult to see.
One of the most interesting conjunctions occurred in June of 2 BC between the planets Venus and Jupiter.
“The human eye would have had difficulty separating the two objects and it would appear as one bright beacon in the sky,” Yee says. “That would have surely captured the attention of the Magi.”