Clockwork Planets

by Tammy Plotner on August 13, 2010

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Bottoms up! Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Venus, Mars...

While the Perseid meteor shower has been putting on quite a show, there’s an awesome “no telescope needed” eye-catching apparition that only requires a clear western skyline. If you haven’t been watching the planets – Mercury, Saturn, Venus and Mars – line up like clockwork, then don’t despair. You have a few more days yet!

While the uniformed all-too-often see “signs of bad portent” in a planetary alignment, the rest of us know this is a perfectly normal function of our solar system called a conjunction. This is a simple positional alignment as seen (usually from Earth’s viewpoint) from any given vantage point. The world isn’t going to end, the oceans aren’t going to rise… and Mars is darn-sure not going to be the size of the Moon. All alignments of at least two celestial bodies are merely coincidental and we even have a grand name for what’s happening – an appulse.

When planets are involved, their near appearance usually happens in the same right ascension. They really aren’t any closer to each other than what their orbital path dictates – it just appears that way. In the same respect, there is also conjunction in ecliptical longitude. But, if the planet nearer the Earth should happen to pass in front of another planet during a conjunction it’s called a syzygy!

One thing is for sure… You don’t have to be a syzy-genius to simply enjoy the show and the predictable movements of our solar system. Just find an open western skyline and watch as twilight deepens. Tonight the Moon will be directly south of Venus and over the next couple of days the planetary alignment will gradually separate as brilliant Venus seems to hold its position, while Mars, Saturn and Mercury drift north. Enjoy the show! Because just like the yearly Mars/Moon Myth?

It happens like clockwork…

Many, many thanks to the incredible Shevill Mathers for providing us with this breathtaking photo. (Do you know just how hard it is to get a shot like that without over or under exposing? I dare you to try it…) Every fox has a silver lining!

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Aqua August 13, 2010 at 2:05 PM

Hi Tammy! I went ‘up the mountain’ last night and took in the Perseids… NICE! Also saw Saturn, but was too lazy to relocate to view the other planets in that part of the sky – there was a mountain in that direction! And I was too lazy to move two telescopes, two lawn chairs and the usual pile of gear… But, I saw 30 Perseids with two BRIGHT bolides in the group and showed off the summer sky to those who dropped in… FUN!
One gal, a friend of a friend, was ‘something else’. She called herself a ‘Sidereal Astrologer’… I asked her what that meant and she went into a wordsome explanation about planetary motions that didn’t quite make much sense – to these ears anyway. She mentioned the giant alien spacecraft that on the far side of the moon, at which point, I tried to remain interested while interjecting bits of science here and there… a tough job! THEN she started talking about the upcoming (2012) planetary alignment at the center of our galaxy and how that would be magnified by the black hole there. Ahem… I asked her if she knew where the center of our galaxy was? And then, what a black hole was? She correctly said “Sagittarius”, but didn’t know where that was in the sky and wasn’t sure about what a Black Hole was. I showed her where Sag. is. As the evening went on, I led the group thru a tour of Planetary Nebula, Globular Clusters, Gaseous nebula in Sag., the Eagle Neb. in Scutum, M31 and others. all the while watching the meteor shower. The ‘sidereal astrologer’ grew quieter and quieter as the tour continued…

There is truth in the saying that a little bit of information can be a dangerous thing.. to some… at least those who would ‘fill in’ the holes in their knowledge with half truths and myth. At the end of the evening, the ‘Sidereal Astrologer’ came up to me and asked when I’d be there viewing again, she’s like to come up again. Then she said she’d really like to learn more about ‘the stars’. Hmmm…. otay then, as long as that spaceship don’t land on my foot and the planets think its alright… I WILL! LOL!

Aqua August 13, 2010 at 2:22 PM

To be fair.. an explanation of ‘sidereal astrology’ as related in Wikipedia can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidereal_astrology

Tammy Plotner August 13, 2010 at 2:54 PM

hahahahaaa! what a wonderful gift you have for telling a story! i felt like i was there…. (wouldn’t it be great if you could come up with a purple robe and some nikes before you meet again? (oh my. i would have such a hard time keeping a straight face!)

don’t feel bad because you didn’t move a telescope or a mountain for that matter. it’s all about having a good time! i never made it past the big ol’ fanback wicker chair and several grape sodas. perseid activity in mid-northen ohio was excellent until about 2:30 – then the bottom dropped out. i waited for perhaps another 30 minutes or so, then let myself just drift off. i woke up about 4:30 indiglo time, picked the tree frog off my last can of soda and stuck it out to 5:30ish – but only saw 6 more. disappointed? nah. hard time moving today? yep!

i got such a kick out of your “sidereal astronomer” – and i am so glad that the cosmos put you there at that place in time so a lot of people didn’t go home thinking we all had space in our heads. that’s what public outreach is all about and i’m so proud of you! (what’s really embarrassing is when you have a co-amateur astronomer spouting some really bad facts. it’s hard not to cringe and offer to buy them a phil plait book.)

so next time you get together? just make sure ms. sidereal can be seen in the primary of your big dob, doesn’t back away from a 4 vein spider, is allowed out on a 14 day moon and doesn’t crack the lens on your red flashlight. if you get two out of three? then offer to show her the dome of the sky…

“oh, give me a dome… yes, a dome of my own…. with its views of saturn and mars. cuz’ if i get you alone… in my own little dome… i promise that you will see stars!”

Aqua August 14, 2010 at 5:50 AM

Thanks Tammy… Reading about your work here and in your observatory web page has encouraged me to becoming more active as an amateur! By the way… I DO have some rather ‘far fetched’ ideas concerning stellar, galactic and even particle synthesis… but I know better than to spout those ideas and stick to the accepted science(s) when in public! That is, unless someone ‘eggs’ me on~~@; )

Surak August 15, 2010 at 11:39 PM

Some more details on how the photo was shot would be nice. I tried for a similar shot also on the 12th, from just east of Vancouver BC. Even as the moon was setting I couldn’t capture Saturn and Mars without over exposing everything.

Now I had the city of Vancouver with it’s light pollution to the west of me and a lot of haze in the air from forest fires, but I dont see how this photo could have been possible at least in my local conditions. The sky was far too bright. Was the photographer in the southern hemisphere where the sun currently sets earlier due to it being their winter?

Oh … and there’s 5 planets in that photo (forgot earth) and the photographer might have also captured the asteroid Vesta if the camera was turned just a bit.

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