Tech Tuesday: The Science Behind ISON And The Star of Bethlehem

Nov 19, 2013

Scientists will likely take a break while Black Friday shopping this year to catch a glimpse of a comet hurtling close to the sun that will be visible to the naked eye.

Comet ISON
Credit NASA

Florida State College at Jacksonville astronomer Mike Reynolds and Jacksonville Museum of Science & History planetarium director Tom Webber joined Melissa Ross to discuss ISON and an upcoming lecture looking at the science of the biblical Star of Bethlehem. 

ISON Sunrise on Black Friday

As the First Coast is carving turkeys, the comet will be passing its perihelion – its closest point to the sun.

“That’s about 680,000 miles,” said Dr. Mike Reynolds, “which is really, really toasty and close.”

To put it into perspective, at its perihelion, Earth is 91.4 million miles from the sun.

Reynolds said the comet, if it survives its close encounter with the Sun, could turn into a festive light show Friday morning.

“We could see long comet tails coming up over the horizon preceding the sun,” Reynolds said.

He said ISON will continue to get further away from the sun, making it easier to see.

“Comets are incredible things to see,” said Tom Webber. “They bring information from the solar system to us to study.”

Two Russian astronomers discovered ISON in Sept., 2012 when it was very dim. Earlier this month, the comet’s activity increased exponentially as it approached the Sun.

Reynolds said, because of the unpredictable nature of comets, it is unsure whether ISON will break up as the Sun continues to cause the icy rock to sublimate, shooting gas and dust into space.

“A comet is like a cat,” Reynolds said. “They both have tails, and minds of their own.”

Reynolds said the beach would be the best place to see ISON, as there is little light pollution. He said it could creep up over the horizon just before the sun on Nov. 29.

Webber said MOSH will have a program after Thanksgiving called "Season of Light," which will detail how we get many of our modern Christmas traditions, like lighting candles and hanging wreaths.

One festive astronomical phenomenon the program will explore is the Star of Bethlehem.

The Science Behind the Star of Bethlehem

Also known as the "Christmas Star," the Star of Bethlehem is a historical phenomenon that many Christians claim foretold the birth Jesus Christ.
 
But what could the star have been, scientifically?

On December 6, Reynolds will be giving a free public speech at FSCJ’s Kent Campus to explore both an astronomical and historical perspective of the star of Bethlehem to try and understand more about the 2,000-year-old phenomenon.

“Was there a bright supernova, or another astronomical event that could have happened,” Reynolds said.

Webber said the biblical Three Wise Men practiced Zoroastrianism, an ancient religious philosophy rooted in astrology. They believed everything in the night sky was part of the celestial sphere.

“We didn’t know planet from star from comet,” Webber said.

Looking back, he said, there was a close grouping of planets in the constellation, Leo.

Because Jupiter was associated with royalty and Venus with fertility, the two planets would have sent a powerful message when they aligned with Regulus, the brightest star in Leo.

“It would’ve been very significant to them,” Reynolds said.

You can follow WJCT on Twitter @WJCTJax.