Three shrouded figures move across the night sky of the U.S. Naval Academy planetarium, where a Christmas show takes viewers back to Persia in the year 3 B.C.
These robed men, the famed Magi of the Christmas story, were most likely Zoroastrian priests, astrologers who thought the heavenly bodies influenced the lives of human beings, historians believe.
Christians everywhere sing hymns about the Wise Men and their star, immortalized in Renaissance art as a famous comet. But determiningwhat bright light the Magi really followed has puzzled astronomers for centuries.
"'There came Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem,' "Craig Back, an Academy electronics technician supervising the program, quoted from the Gospel accounts.
"The first question in figuring out what the Wise Men saw is finding out when they came."
As constellations spread above them in the dark, a group of first- through sixth-graders from St. Martin's Lutheran Church School in Annapolis gasped, then sat back to listen to a recorded voice tackle the elusivestar question.
Historians believe the birth of Christ probably occurred between 3 and 2 B.C., which narrows the search, but not the problems.
The word star, in the language of the ancients, could havereferred to a planet, comet, meteor or almost any other object in the sky, says Back. A nova, or exploding star that shines brilliantly for a short period of time, might be a possibility, but no one but theMagi reported seeing a nova during the period in question, and if one had occurred, anyone could have seen it.
There may, however, have been unusual celestial events only the Wise Men may have noticed. Any unusual arrangement of heavenly bodies was thought to precede a significant event, and the Wise Men apparently were familiar with the Hebrew prophecies predicting a coming king whose birth would be heralded by a sign in the sky. They would have been watching the heavens for a sign.
"The sky was divided into several imaginary regions and these areas in the heavens were thought to control various parts of the earth, races of men and parts of the body," Back explains. "The actual influence of these regions was considered to be the result of the different arrangements of the seven ancient planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun and the moon."
The position of the planets at the time of Christ can be calculated with great accuracy, and astronomers have found that an unusual grouping of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn occurred during 6 B.C. in the constellation of Pisces,called by ancient astronomers the House of the Hebrews. The event occurs once in 805 years, and may have been the sign which started the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem.
Other options include a lunar eclipse that occurred between 4 B.C. and 1 B.C. or a significant conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, the Lion.
To present the star show, the computerized planetarium uses a GOTO GX-12 star projector with multiple video formats and slide and special effects.
Typically, the academy planetarium in Luce Hall is used to teach midshipmen celestial navigation. They learn,for example, how to identify stars and constellations and gain sextant practice, Back says.
Public shows at the planetarium are often included in guided tours at the academy, and one of the most popular is the story of the Christmas star.
The 50-minute program is free to the public and will be shown at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 19 and 20 andat 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m. Dec. 21.
Reservations are required: 267-2143 from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The planetarium is inside the north entrance of Luce Hall on the Academy grounds.