My twin grandsons are only a year old, which means if I take them outside and point out the planets, stars, and constellations whose light will guide Santa as he makes his way around the world, the little boys will look up for half a second and then fixate on a street lamp.
Maybe next year – or the next.
Those of you with slightly older little loved ones may have better luck. And local amateur astronomer and longtime Catawba Valley Astronomy Club officer Jeff Whisenant has all the information you need.
According to Jeff, the jolly old elf will begin his trip early in the evening – not our evening, though. Because it gets dark on the other side of the world before daylight fades in the western sky, Santa will hit Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe before heading for North America. He’ll work down and up, down and up, zigzagging from time to time so no one is missed. Unless a child is visiting Antarctica with an adult (which is required, since no one under 18 can go there alone), Santa won’t stop on Earth’s southernmost continent.
“To get to North America,” explained Jeff, he’s going to look toward the southwest where he’ll see the planet Mars.” It’s a bright orange dot easy to spot on Christmas Eve around 8 p.m. No telescope required. Said Jeff, “This is the beacon that will guide him from Europe to North America.”
When St. Nick reaches our continent, which, surmised Jeff, will involve an initial landing in the southern U.S, “he’ll switch to use the brightest ‘star’ in the sky,” said Jeff. “The Dog Star or Sirius.” It will be low in the southeast.
“A lot of people will look at [Sirius] and call it the Christmas star,” Jeff stated. “It really wasn’t. That’s not what the wise men followed.” Digressing a moment, Jeff explained that “we believe they followed a very close pairing – called a conjunction – of Jupiter and Saturn.” Additionally, the event didn’t occur in December. It likely took place, said Jeff, “in the warmer months around 7 B.C.”
Now, back to Santa’s flight and guiding light. Jeff described star patterns as fairly fixed, with the constellations’ shapes remaining the same over long periods. “It takes tens of thousands of years for changes to occur,” Jeff made clear. Good news for Kris Kringle, who doesn’t have to rethink his travel plans every 12 months. Jeff thinks the jolly man’s likely begun using GPS anyway. I wavered, first thinking he might be one of those sorts who believes he’s lived a long time and gotten along just fine without technology, so why start using it now?
On the other hand, he has access to anything anybody could want, including the latest gizmos, and he wouldn’t want to deliver gifts that he hasn’t tested himself, so maybe he’s become intrigued with Siri and Alexa and that woman who talks on WAZE.
I concluded Santa does use navigation equipment, but due to the extreme importance of his task, he also keeps an eye on the sky, and for even more insurance against going off course, he doesn’t forget Rudolph’s pre-flight nose polishing.
In North America, Santa will see the constellation Orion low in the east. “That’s his big signpost to figure out which way north is and which way south is,” said Jeff.
Looking to Orion, “he’ll see three stars in a row standing straight up,” Jeff described. The time will be about 9 p.m. EST. We, too, can see Orion. Again, no equipment required.
I interrupted Jeff to question whether weather, especially cloudiness, could hamper the old elf’s mission. Not a problem, Jeff responded. Santa rides above the clouds.
Mr. Claus will travel southward, going all the way down the east coasts of North and South America and then traveling up and down and zigzagging just as he did before. “He’ll work his way west, completing one time zone after the other,” said Jeff. And he won’t miss a single girl or boy. “Not even that boy on the farm in the middle of Nebraska,” Jeff joked.
The big question, of course, is when the man in red will arrive in Catawba County. Jeff said around midnight. “Santa will see a very bright yellowish creamy-colored star almost directly overhead,” Jeff detailed. The star’s name is Capella, and it moves fast, so Santa must make quick work of local deliveries.
Aiding St. Nick as he lands first on one roof and then another will be a bright moon, having just been full on Dec. 22.
“By 3 a.m., he’ll be finishing deliveries in California and following Sirius and Capella toward Hawaii,” said Jeff. Then, “he’ll be heading north toward Alaska on his way to the North Pole. By this time, he’ll be following the Big Dipper and the North Star.” Jeff said the sun will rise just after 7:30 EST on Christmas morning. By that time, St. Nick will be home, and millions of children will be squealing and screaming.
If you’re one of those people interested in all things space related – and you’re willing to pull yourself out of your warm bed before sunrise, you’ll find a gift in the sky. The International Space Station is going to pass overhead, and you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of it. Jeff said the time to see it is between 6:12 and 6:18. “It’s going to be a very nice pass,” Jeff predicted. “Look to the southwest, and you’ll see a very bright moving dot that will not flash. That’s the space station. It will come up in the southwest, pass directly overhead, and set in the northeast.”
Jeff cautioned that he’d collected his data that day (Dec. 17) and it could change. To get updated information, visit catawbasky.org.
And have a very Merry Christmas!
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