The Mystery of the Christmas Star
by Ron Miller
There is one subject that has fascinated both astronomers and space artists for a very long time, and it is a subject that—once every year—is hard to ignore: the Star of Bethlehem (also known as the Christmas Star) and what it might have been.
 
Over the centuries many astronomers have been fascinated by the story of the Christmas Star. It is first mentioned in Matthew 2:1-2 which, in the King James Version, reads "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."
Credit: Google Art Project
 A Franco-Flemish painting circa 1400 depicting
the arrival of the Magi with the guiding star above.
The passage suggests that it may have been an actual star—or at least some sort of heavenly body—that the Magi saw. Many astronomers have wondered: if there was a Christmas star, what might it have been? Possibilities are complicated by the question: Just when was Jesus born? There are no clear Biblical references. Today, most scholars believe the birth of Jesus occurred sometime between 4 and 7 BC. Consequently, there have been many suggestions regarding the possible nature of the Christmas Star.
 
Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was both artist and astronomer but was not a particularly religious man. In fact, he was a self-proclaimed agnostic. However, he did create one illustration of the Christmas Star. It appeared as an inside illustration in the December 23, 1951 issue of This Week Magazine.
Credit: This Week Magazine
The Christmas Star (1951) by Chesley Bonestell.
One idea was that the Star of Bethlehem was in fact a supernova: an exploding star. This would have been a one-time event that would have appeared in the night sky for only a relatively short time. However, astronomers have found no remnants of a supernova from the period nor was the appearance of one recorded by other cultures.
Credit: NASA
The remnants of a supernova, as seen in this
composite photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer
Space Telescope, and Chandra X-ray Observatory. The explosion
of this star was witnessed by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604.
Among the most famous naked-eye supernovas were those observed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572 and by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604. Both were visible with the naked eye even in daytime. The sudden appearance of a bright new star in the sky would surely have been noticed by astrologers and taken as a sign of some important event.
In this painting, Bonestell depicts
a nova, seen from a hypothetical 
nearby planet.
From the book,
Beyond the Solar System (1964).
The Christmas Star that the Magi saw may have been a particularly bright comet, something long associated with prophecies and portents.
In this small painting, created by Bonestell for himself late in life, Romans are amazed by the sight of a brilliant comet in the evening sky.

Another theory is that the Christmas Star may have been a conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and a real star, Regulus. A conjunction is when stars and planets appear very near one another in the sky—sometimes so close as to appear as one.

In a conjunction, two distant objects will appear to the naked eye as one when viewed in the night sky from Earth.
A conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in December 2020 created a brilliant Christmas star in the winter skies for many nights.
 
There are other conjunctions that occurred within the decade usually ascribed to the birth of Jesus: A conjunction of just Jupiter and Venus or Jupiter and Regulus are examples. These heavenly bodies would all have had special significance: Jupiter is the king of the planets, Regulus is the Latin word for “prince” and Venus was a symbol of love and fertility. 
 
Below are some planetary paintings to illustrate things a bit further:
Jupiter seen from near its moon, Callisto,
in a 1974 painting by Chesley Bonestell.
Bonestell published this view of Venus as it might appear to an approaching spaceship in The Conquest of Space (1949).
The two small stars to the right of Venus are the Earth and the Moon.
The Christmas Star as a comet (left) and as a supernova (right) as imagined by author and space artist, Ron Miller.
The Christmas Star as a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (left) and as a conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus (right) as conceived by Ron Miller.
It’s now been over 2000 years since the birth of Jesus and we may never know astronomically what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. Space telescopes like the Hubble and the soon-to-be launched James Webb telescope, will shed more light on the mysteries of the universe. For certain though, the beauty of the cosmos above and the celebration of Christmas are still with us. We should ponder the message that comes so often at this time of year—“Let there be peace on Earth”—and let it find its way further into the hearts and minds of all the peoples on this planet.
Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones!
- The Chesley Bonestell Team
 
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