As you hold a fresh copy of The Loafer in your hands, I know you’ve been outside and enjoying the evening twilight, wondering just what are those bright stars that are strung across our southern horizon?
And that’s why the Stargaze is back, to help you enjoy the one science that is worthy of the word “awesome,” astronomy.
The evenings of Autumn 2018 will be remembered as the “string of planets,” as right now four alien worlds beckon your eyes—Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
Right in your city backyard you can see these planets are the brightest stars of the night, strung across the sky like colored pearls. The beautiful scene begins when the Sun sets after 7 pm and the stages of twilight descend upon the land.
Just like the stargazers 3,000 years go in ancient lands like Mesopotamia and Shinar, you stand mesmerized as a 21st Century human looking at star-like objects that are amazing worlds and who’s surfaces you know something about.
You know that Venus is hot as hell and covered in clouds, Mars has active polar caps, dormant volcanoes and dried riverbeds. You’ve heard of the Red Spot of Jupiter and its four large moons, and of course, those stunning rings of Saturn.
Mankind just 100 years ago knew none of these details about the planets. And it took Galileo point a telescope and seeing Jupiter’s moons in 1609 that triggered a new understanding that our Earth was just a minor player in the scheme of an unfathomably large Universe.
The mystery of the starry sky has attracted mankind since the primitive caveman began noticing the Moon’s phases. And those who began to try and put reasoning with what they saw became prominent in early societies. Those ancient stargazers held high positions in the kingdoms they lived, making predictions of destiny for their leaders as foretold in the stars. And the key to their psychic wisdom was the Sun, Moon and five bright stars that were the only objects that moved among the thousands of fixed points of light in the night sky.
And thus, astrology was born, the hated false-science by astronomers—and we’ll save that feud for later. Let’s just say that the Sun spends 8 days in Scorpius in October, and the next 18 days in a little known but large constellation called Ophiuchus before moving into Sagittarius in November. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a good horoscope.
It was the Greeks who coined the word “planet,” translated “wanderer.” And that’s what you can do all Autumn, is watch these planets wander on either side of the Milky Way as Summer loses its grip and Autumn take over the Northern Hemisphere.
Watched over a period of weeks, you’ll see the movement of the planets against the backdrop of stars, all in a banded area of 12 constellations we call the Zodiac (and Ophiuchus is the 13th star pattern in this swath of sky called the “ecliptic”). All you need is your eyes and a good memory to which stars are near the planets, and you’ll see the change.
As the sunset after 7 pm and twilight begins, the first planet to be seen in the evening glare is Venus, reaching it’s brightest point this week—so bright it can cast a shadow! In any telescope, even a small one, you can see it is a crescent like the Moon, but only for a month as it plunges closer to the Sun, to be lost in the glare in November and pop back up into the morning sky in early 2019.
The next planet from sunset, moving toward the east, is bright yellow Jupiter. It and pearly white Venus are only outshone by the Sun and Moon. Binoculars held steady will hint at a globe and maybe a moon or two. In a small telescope you will see the dark cloud bands and Red Spot when it is facing us.
The next bright star will be a red one, and a real star, Antares in the heart of Scorpius. If you are in a dark, rural area, you’ll see the Milky Way. To the left of Antares (which means not Ares, or Mars) is Sagittarius, which looks like a dot-to-dot teapot. At the top of that teapot in the hear to the Milky Way is Saturn. Bright yellow, you need a small telescope to see the rings, but once you do, you’ll say, “Wow!”
Looking further left (standing south) you are drawn to the reddest “star” you’ve ever seen, planet Mars. Now you know why it is named after the Roman god of war (Or Greek war Ares), as it reminded the ancients of a drop of blood. And that is way the reddish star in Scorpius, Antares, is “not Mars.”
Mars is only this bright for a couple every two years when it is closest to Earth. These “oppositions” of the two planets allow earthlings to see surface features on this tiny world—half the size of Earth and twice the size of our Moon. And in a small telescope you can see the white polar caps and dark continent-like features against the salmon pink of the Martian deserts.
But you don’t need a fancy telescope to “see” the planets. You have that Smartphone or computer that can take you there. As you look up at Mars, think about the two rovers on the surface and four unmanned spacecraft orbiting. Saturn had a spacecraft called Cassini, now defunct, that orbited for years and its images will blow your mind if you look them up. Jupiter has NASA’s Juno making close, 5,000-mile passes of the cloud tops before looping out a million miles, an orbit of scientific work that will last several years. And though no more missions are planned to Venus, NASA’s Magellan orbited it and we know its 900-degree surface as well as our own.
So, when you look up, think of these star-like planets as worlds of their own, with named places and character all their own. And then step back and put yourself in the mind of an ancient Mesopotamian stargazer, not knowing what it all means, yet realizing you’re looking at something special. Enjoy the pearls of planets across our sky and don’t stop looking up.