Everything in space is moving. Galaxies collide and merge, massive clouds of gas migrate, and asteroids, comets, and rogue planets zip around and between it all. And in our own Solar System, the planets follow their ancient orbits.
Now a new data visualization shows us just how much our view from Earth changes in two years, as the orbits of the planets change the distance between us and our neighbours.
The video comes from Dr. James O’Donoghue. He’s a planetary scientist, formerly of NASA and currently with JAXA. According to his website, he specializes “in ground-based astronomy of giant planet upper atmospheres, in particular Jupiter, Saturn and exoplanets.”
O’Donoghue has made several animations and data visualizations, which are all on his YouTube channel.
This video covers about a two-year span, from August 2020 to October 2022. The Moon’s appearance cycles rapidly compared to the planets. Venus grows significantly larger as the space between Earth and Venus shrinks. For a period of time, it dwarfs Jupiter’s appearance.
In the video, each second spans 10 days of real time. Condensing the time like that gives the video its explanatory power.
James’ videos are very interesting. A series of them show the speed of light as applied to light travelling between Solar System objects. For example, one simply shows the speed of light by having light travel back and forth between Earth and the Moon in real time, every 1.255 seconds. It looks like Pong.
Another one drives the point home, by showing how long it takes for light leaving the Sun to reach each planet in the Solar System, eventually terminating at Pluto. But since it’s real time, it takes 5 and a half hours to watch it all. (Spoiler alert: the photons make it there safely.)
These videos are a good reminder of what it takes to explore space. We’re inundated with research into distant objects in the galaxy, things that are hundreds, or even thousands or tens of thousands of light years away. Or we’re asked to stretch our minds enough to consider the vast, extreme distances in the Universe, and the objects that populate it. We can gaze at a map of the large-scale structure of the Universe and take it all in, and try to give it meaning.
We also face a steady diet of mission proposals to the other worlds in our own Solar System. A whole generation of humans is growing up during a time when there have always been rovers on Mars. There are proposals for lander missions to Pluto, and for spacecraft to visit the iced-over ocean moons of the Solar System, to search for life.
It’s easy to get a little jaded to how awesome it all is.
O’Donoghue’s videos are sort of an antidote to all of that. They remind of us of the vast distances and times involved in Solar System and space exploration.
They can also be a little melancholy. This video of Saturn’s rings disappearing over the next 100 million years is kind of sad. They’ve always been there. Maybe we’ll feel orphaned without them?