According to the Bible, when Jesus was born three Magi saw a star in the East that signaled the birth of a new king. But just what was it, from an astronomical point or view, that the Magi actually saw? Astronomer Fred Grosse says there are several popular theories that may answer this question. According to him, “Astronomical objects or events which would be of interest to serious stargazers of the time include comets and meteors, nova or supernova, and auroras.” But the favorite candidate for the star of Bethlehem is a planetary conjunction.

A conjunction happens when two celestial objects appear to pass very near to each other from our perspective on Earth. Often, these conjunctions look like one large object rather than separate ones. “In 6 BCE, Jupiter and Saturn passed each other three times, in May, September, and December?a triple conjunction,” Grosse says. “Since the actual year of Jesus’ birth is tough to pin down, an event in 6 BCE remains a good candidate to explain what the Magi saw. Because this conjunction only happens once every 140 years, it would have been a significant event to astrologers from Babylon.

“A conjecture is that they saw the first passing from their homes, left for Jerusalem, and got there in time for the second or third passing to guide them to Bethlehem,” he says. “[Astronomer Johannes] Kepler knew of this conjunction, and since his time astronomers have connected the triple conjunction with the Star of Bethlehem.”

And remember: a scientific explanation doesn’t mean that miracles can’t still happen during this season.

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