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‘Christmas Star’ visible Monday: Rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn

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(WQOW)- Just days before Christmas, you'll be able to see something in the sky, weather permitting of course, that some are comparing to the star of Bethlehem.

Next Monday is the Winter Solstice, and it happens to coincide with a once in several hundred year event. While some are calling it the 'Christmas Star' or the 'Star of Bethlehem', the bright spot in the sky on Monday evening won't be a star at all.

The phenomenon is actually conjunction of two planets: Jupiter and Saturn.

"From our point of view, Jupiter and Saturn are in almost exactly the same direction," said Paul Thomas, a professor of physics and astronomy at UW-Eau Claire. "Since they move at different speeds, it isn't something that happens often."

While a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn happens every 20 years or so, the last time they appeared this close together was all the way back in 1623. The 1623 conjunction happened during the day, so the last time this type of conjunction was visible from Earth was nearly 800 years ago in 1226.

A similar conjunction will happen in march of 2080, but the two planets won't appear as close as they will on Monday until the year 2417. Jupiter and Saturn will be only about a tenth of a degree apart, which is roughly a third of the diameter of the moon.

To see the planets, look toward the southwest right after sunset. Thomas said they will only be visible for about an hour afterward. With a good eye, you'll be able to see there are two separate planets, but they will be located close together and can be seen with the naked eye.

"There's been a very long history, centuries long, of historians trying to figure out what the real star of Bethlehem was," said Thomas. "It turns out there was such a conjunction, but my recollection is that most historians think it occurred not quite at the right date, for it to be associated with the birth of Christ."

While other phenomena such as a supernova or a comet have been suggested as possible explanations, for now, the true star of Bethlehem remains a mystery.

You don't have to wait until Monday to see the planets. You can see them now on a clear night just after sunset, they'll just be a little bit farther apart.

Thomas added if you look to the southeast, you can also see Mars right now, which is visible right now until about midnight each night.

Jess Langlois

Jess Langlois is the weekend meteorologist and weekday multi-media journalist for News 18. She joined us in July of 2019.

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