Hey, sky fans. Snowy out there.
I’ve been thinking a bunch about the big, close planetary alignment that’s been giving us a reason to get out of bed early this week. I stepped outside the other morning, when it was surprisingly warm, but also surprisingly windy, to have a look. Thanks to the pin oaks and the ’80s modern architecture across the street, I was only able to see Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. “Only” is relative, of course — any time you’re able to see across close to a billion miles of space and point out a specific object, “only” takes on a bit of a different meaning. With all of the planets filing into the sky ahead of the sun from our perspective, I’ve started to spend more time outside looking at the mornings’ eastern skies lately than I ever have. It’s a small and quiet hobby I never thought I’d enjoy so much. It’s a few extra moments of calm just before the day’s chaos that I’ve started to take quite a bit of pleasure in. For those few moments, even on the coldest, most January of January days, the world is mine. So, planets in the morning, Pleiades in the evening, ain’t we got fun? It’s hard to complain about that.
All of what we’re seeing in this alignment of course, is just our perception on things; the long con of optical illusions. The planets aren’t really that close together. Even though we can see them all in the amount of time it takes to take a breath, by just turning slightly to the right, Mercury and Saturn are close to a billion miles apart in real life. That’s far. As all of the planets zip around the sun in their orbits, from time to time, a couple of them — in this case, all of them — wind up on the same side of the sun relative to us as seen from here on Earth. Pow! Pop the corks, we got ourselves a planetary alignment! As with most things, perspective and point-of-view are everything.
This alignment will change over the next couple of weeks before all of the planets just continue about their way and wind up farther and farther apart in the sky. These things are cyclical, though, so by the time you unpack your flip-flops, hot doggin’ tongs, and wide-brimmed hats, they’ll all be making their way into the evening sky just after sunset. By then, you’re right, they’ll all be on the other side of the sun, following behind it, as seen from our floating lounge chairs.
Incidentally, the reason they’re all in a line, rather than scattered all over the sky, is because all of our solar system’s planets orbit in more or less the same plane, like balls on a table. What we see of this plane is called the ecliptic. Actually, the ecliptic is the apparent path the sun takes across the sky, but because the planets and their moons are all in the pretty much the same plane as each other, under the gravitational thumb of the sun, the ecliptic marks their path across the sky, too. Matter of fact, the ecliptic gets its name because lunar and solar eclipses happen when our moon crosses it during the new moon and full moon phases.
If the sun weren’t so bright, and you were really patient, you could go outside and watch as, one by one, the planets rise in the east, and follow the same long arcing line overhead, and then set in the west. Somewhere along the way the sun would join them. If you watch the skies enough, you get a feel for where the ecliptic is, and you can use it as a tool for figuring out if something you see along that line is a planet and finding your way in the sky. There are stars along the ecliptic, too, but that’s just coincidence. Sometimes, the planets, which are all closer than even the nearest stars, block out, or occult, the stars on along the ecliptic. The moon is always blocking things out.
Speaking of balls on a table, have a look at these photos, which were shot a bit ago in the astrokitchens down at Sky Watch HQ.
In the photo on the left, you can see five balls that are clustered close together more or less in a flat line across the table as seen by our camera. Our Home Depot sun is off to the left over the blue, yellow, and pink speckled planet. See how the yellow, white and-red striped planet is really close in our camera’s sky to the green and white one? Well, over in the right-hand photo, we look at the solar system from overhead. The balls are all over the table, with the yellow, white and red-striped one really far from the green and white one. That’s kind of like what we’re looking at when we see planetary alignments like the one we have now. Everything looks to be close together, but lines of sight and orbital geometry can play tricks on us. They’re all tremendously far apart. As the earth and all of the other planets move, the alignment changes from one night to the next; the planets wander. Don’t get any ideas; those photos are not to scale, and, as yet, astronomers have not discovered any pepper mills or mugs orbiting in our solar system (the teapot was just out of frame).
Other than the morning quiet, being able to get up and see that incredible beauty stretched out across over 90 degrees of open purple and orange sky gives a real sensation of place; of where things are, where I am in the solar system. If you can find the time and the stomach to get up early and have a look, you won’t regret it.
Clear skies everyone!