The Christmas Star Drive-In Party

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Leave it to Wisconsin weather to ruin a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event.

But that did not deter GLAS Education from holding a star party in Duck Creek Recreation Area, Fontana, starting 5:30 p.m. Dec. 21 to mark the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in more than 800 years.

A similar conjunction is also believed by modern astronomers to have been the Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in the New Testament Book of Matthew, which occurred about 7 B.C. (Without getting into the problems with our modern calendar, Jesus of Nazareth was probably born well before 1 A.D.) That “star” is believed to have led magi, the star watchers of their time, to the home of a boy named Jesus, believed to be the new King of Israel.

Fortunately, skies above ancient Palestine were clear.

But a solid dome of clouds covered the Dec. 21 night sky over Geneva Lake, blocking any chance that area residents would see the conjunction.

The two gas giants only apparently meet. Jupiter is about 550 million miles from Earth; Saturn is about twice that far. But when their orbits are properly aligned, they can appear as one very bright star as they cross paths.

Adam McCulloch, GLAS outreach manager, planned a planetarium show of the conjunction projected on a portable 7-by-9-foot inflatable screen in front of the recreation area pavilion, turning the area into a temporary drive-in theater of the sky.

Weather intervened again, with freezing rain and high winds that ended plans for the inflatable screen.

Up to 30 vehicles could be parked in the lot facing the pavilion. Partiers stayed warm and dry in their rides.

Adam and Katya Gozman, a former GLAS intern and doctoral candidate in astrophysics at the University of Michigan, went on the air via 92.9 FM and broadcast a description of the celestial event and its possible connection to the Christmas story.

Visitors using SkyView or other astronomy apps followed along. For fun, McCulloch and Gozman also led star party visitors in an astronomy trivia game.

A survey taken of those at the star party showed that while everyone deplored the weather, most enjoyed the star party. Only one of the 12 respondents reported being disappointed.

Others said that despite the weather they enjoyed the presentation. A few said the radio reception was poor while others said it was good.

And there was encouragement to try another drive-in star party. And there is a good chance there will be another in 2021. Only next time, let the skies be clear.