Sharing the mystery of the Christmas star

Planetarium show Thursday evening

- December 13, 2011

The interior of the planetarium (Peter Klages photo)
The interior of the planetarium (Peter Klages photo)

With the holiday season comes many familiar stories, including that of the
‘Christmas Star’, which shone over the little town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Could this famous star have really existed?

Astronomers have been observing and recording the night sky for thousands of years, and can aid in learning about ancient historical events.

“As our understanding of the timing and repeatability of astronomical events has grown we can ‘wind the clock’ backwards and date these historical events with reference to our current calendar,” explains Quinn Smith, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Mr. Smith will be giving a public presentation entitled “The Christmas Star - Fact or Fiction?” this Thursday Dec. 15 at the Halifax Planetarium in Dalhousie's Dunn Building.

A holiday detective story

“I am going to use the ‘Christmas Star’ story to attempt to date the birth of Jesus by identifying what astronomical events could have constituted this star,” says Mr. Smith, who compares researching the ‘Christmas Star’ to a “good detective story.”

He read books and articles on the subject, as well as used special software programs to reconstruct some of the astronomical events he was examining. Although he did come across many interesting ideas, Mr. Smith struggled to find consensus among scientists who had studied the subject. “This suited me just fine as I wanted to put my own ideas forward,” he admits.

“What I enjoy most about giving this show,” he continues, “is that I get to use many of the features of the planetarium, explain some great astronomy, and hopefully give the audience a clearer understanding of the wonders of the night sky.”

A public-focused planetarium

Located in the Dunn building, Dalhousie’s planetarium is used not only by university classes but also school and community groups. Additionally, it runs regular public events, including Mr. Smith’s upcoming holiday presentation.

In this modern age of disposable technology, it is impressive to learn that the planetarium’s star-projector equipment is still the original set purchased by the Museum of Natural History (then the Nova Scotia Museum of Science) in 1955. The planetarium came to Dalhousie in 1979, in part due to the efforts of faculty in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science who realized the museum had stored the equipment after its move to Sumner street.

Stephen Payne, Dal physics instructor, organizes all the planetarium events, which he says are designed to be accessible to the untrained stargazer. “You don’t need prior knowledge,” assures Dr. Payne. “The point of the planetarium is to educate.”

So if you want to glimpse the night sky untainted by the lights of the city, why not take a trip to the planetarium?

“Nobody leaves disappointed!” says Dr. Payne.

‘Christmas Star - Fact or Fiction?’ presented by Quinn Smith
Thursday December 15, 7:15 and 8:45 pm
Halifax Planetarium, Dunn 118, Dalhousie University
To reserve a seat, please e-mail


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