A rare astral phenomenon will soon occur which many astronomers have dubbed the “Christmas Star.”

On the night of Monday, Dec. 21, the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will appear so closely aligned that they will appear as one large planet, also known as a conjunction.

This close of a conjunction has not occurred since the Middle Ages – or more specifically – since March 4, 1226, almost 800 years ago.

The two planets have been drifting closer all summer, and are currently visible around 45 minutes after sunset. The planets have been inching much closer since Dec. 16 and will eventually meet on Monday as the Christmas Star.

In reality, of course, the planets are not even remotely close to each other, or Earth. For perspective, the distance between the Earth and the Sun is what is referred to as an astronomical unit. Saturn is 10 astronomical units from Earth, whereas Jupiter is five astronomical units from earth.

Jupiter and Saturn did align within the solar system a few weeks ago, but on Dec. 21 the planets will align with Earth, making it a historic sighting.

The planets will be separated by less than the apparent diameter of a full moon.

It is theorized by astronomers – including the renowned German astronomer Johannes Kepler – that the “star of Bethlehem” mentioned in the Bible could have been a rare triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Venus, thus earning this event the name “Christmas Star.”

The unique event will be observable across the planet, and will be best viewed for about an hour after sunset. A clear southwestern horizon and no low clouds will provide peak viewing, and if star gazers have a telescope on hand, they may even be able to see Saturn’s rings.

A “great conjunction” like this will not occur again until March 15, 2080, and then until after the year 2400.

Sunset in Alcorn County on Monday will be at 4:47 p.m.

A popular star-gazing spot for Crossroads area residents is Big Hill Pond State Park in McNairy County, thanks to the park’s low-level light pollution and wide-open campgrounds. Pickwick Lake and Pickwick Landing State Park are also good locations.

Angele Latham is editor of the Independent-Appeal newspaper in Selmer, Tenn. This story is republished with permission.

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