Jupiter and The Star of Bethlehem

A couple of years ago, a U.S. astronomer said he had uncovered the first reference to the star of Bethlehem outside the Bible, in the 4th-century writings of a Christian convert who wanted to hide the astrological roots of the celestial phenomenon.

For centuries, scientists and scholars have debated about the nature of the Biblical light that led the Magi to the newborn Jesus. Some have suggested a comet or supernova.

But Michael Molnar concluded that the star was actually a double eclipse of the planet Jupiter roughly 2,000 years ago.

«The Mathesis», a book written in 334 A.D. by Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer of Constantine the Great, described the astrological event involving an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon in the constellation of Aries (the sign of the Jews), and said that it signified the birth of a divine king.

And now, heralding the onset of Christmas, Jupiter is back in our skies, low in the west in the early evening.

It’s the largest planet in the Solar System, has a retinue of 63 satellites (at last count) and shields Earth from inbound comets. One of it’s moons, Europa, is suspected of haboring an ocean beneath its icy crust, one that has a very good chance of supporting life.

Jupiter is a spectacular planet when seen in a telescope, sporting two prominent cloud bands and its Great Red Spot, a cyclonic storm system three times the size of Earth that has blown across Jupiter for over 300 years. Glistening like diamonds, the four largest satellites orbit the planet in a matter of days in a never-ending dance. And, because we see those satellites edge-on, they alternately sail across Jupiter’s face, throwing dark shadows onto Jupiter’s clouds, or get eclipsed by Jupiter itself when they go behind the planet.

Back in 1994, an incredible spectacle unfolded in that part of the solar system. An inbound comet was torn apart by Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull. 20 fragments separated into a line of beads, each with its own cometary tail. While that in itself was spectacular, Jupiter wasn’t finished with the comet. The immense planet pulled the comet in, and all 20 fragments plummeted into Jupiter’s atmosphere and detonated in the biggest explosions seen in recorded history. And they left their mark. Visible for weeks afterward, the dark impact blotches were visible in backyard telecopes. That one event gave nations across the world pause for thought. What if such en event had happened to Earth instead of Jupiter? In all probablity, it would have been an extinction level event. It was, in part, responsible for the blockbuster movies Armageddon and Deep impact.

People like looking at the Great Red Spot, especially when you consider its size — it could contain 3 Earths — and following the motions of Jupiter’s satellites which change on a daily basis. Because Jupiter’s satellites orbit in its equatorial plane, shadows from the satellites are frequently cast onto Jupiter itself. Binoculars will show Jupiter and its satellites, but you’ll need a telescope to see the Great Red Spot or the satellites’ shadows.

Some of the best astrophotgraphers (amateur astronomers with largeish telescopes and equipment for taking images through them) have taken some stunning views of Jupiter. And there are even time-lapse sequences which show the planet rotating, satellites crossing it and the odd shadow drifiting across Jupiter’s face.

So it’s fair to say that Jupiter and its environs is one pretty interesting place. But knowing what to look for, and when, is key to making the most of any Jovian observing experience.

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