There are many things we can be thankful for, one of them being is that the Wise Men had clear night skies on their way to Bethlehem. Religious-theme Christmas cards show a nice starry sky with one very bright star dominating the scene.
Theories about the Christmas star fall into two main groups, depending on your point of view: a. It is only a nice story; or b. It is true. Possibility b. then leads to the question, what was the Christmas star? Some say it was a miraculous sign, which would best fit the Biblical narrative that the star moved and hovered over the manger. Others point to a possible supernova- a rare exploding star that can outshine every star in the sky; an unusual large comet; or a rare conjunction of bright planets- which was known to have occurred in the general time frame of Christ’s birth.
Ask almost any child in Western Society about what the North Pole means to them and you will likely hear it is the abode of one Mr. Claus; the domicile of eight or nine reindeer, an assortment of elves and Saint Nick and his family; where Kris Kringel “hangs his hat.”
Hopefully the polar cap won’t be melting more than it is or Santa may need to consider a house boat.
What would the jolly fellow see from his ice cap home when he looked up? Right at the North Pole- where the barbershop pole is supposedly planted- the North Star, or Polaris, shines straight overhead. Around the very horizon is the Celestial Equator. Night lasts six months there, so as long as the sky is clear, you would see the constellations move around you in a circle, right around a point next to the North Star.
From mid-northern latitudes such as where Pennsylvania is found, the Big Dipper just misses the north horizon, as well as the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, on the opposite side from the North Star. We call these constellations “circumpolar” in that they never set. Others are the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor the Little Bear); Draco the Dragon; Cepheus the King and Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. From the North Pole, the ENTIRE VISIBLE SKY is circumpolar!
Also visible would be the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. This fantastic natural light show is caused by charged particles from outbursts on the Sun, interacting with the atoms of Earth’s upper atmosphere, and flowing along the Earth’s magnetic field which surrounds the planet just like a magnet. Interestingly, a compass does not necessarily point exactly to the North Pole, but will be a few degrees off, depending on where you live. This is because the Earth, like an 8,000 mile wide magnet, has a north and a south magnetic end, or pole, but is off center from the Earth’s north-south axis of spin. The North Magnetic Pole is located in northern Canada. The North Pole of the axis of rotation is on the top of the globe.
Northern lights appear regularly in a circle in the sky around the North Magnetic Pole (Southern Lights likewise appear in the south over Antarctica). On rare occasions Northern Lights move further down and we are able to see them from lower latitudes. From Santa’s North Pole, however, that “ring of fire” of Northern Lights would be off center and not straight overhead with the North Star in the middle.
Cold night observing tips
Six months of night would be excellent for stargazers. It is a wonder not more people move there.
Just be sure to dress extra warm — in layers, and don’t forget your hat!
Look for Orion
At about 8 p.m. on Christmas night, or any night this week in early evening, be sure to savor the glory of the bright stars of winter. These will be seen in the east-southeast at this time of night. Almost making up for the cold, an unusual serving of brilliant stars shine. The constellation Orion is the favorite of many. If you locate nothing else, be sure to recognize Orion the Hunter. Learn it and point it out to your children and grandchildren. They may likely treasure that memory for the rest of their lives. Show them Orion’s three stars that make up the “belt” and the several stars of the “sword” hanging off the belt. Point out fiery red Betelgeuse in the upper left from the belt, and brilliant blue-white Rigel in the lower right.
The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, shines forth to the lower left of Orion. Above Orion is orange Aldeberan, seemingly connected to the V-shaped Hyades star cluster; off the Hyades, is the compact, glittering star cluster, the Pleiades. Almost over head is bright yellow Capella. Further left of Orion is the duo, Pollux and Castor, both bright stars; between these and Sirius, is yellow Procyon, another winter luminary.
Bright planet Jupiter shines nicely in the southeast before dawn. Reddish Mars, much dimmer, is nearby, to the upper right. These planets are moving closer and closer; on January 6 Mars will be only a third of a degree from Jupiter (less than half the apparent width of the full Moon)!
Last quarter Moon is on Tuesday, December 26.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.