PLANETARY CONJUNCTION


I went out recently to see the close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.  I could have done without the hype: that it was the closest they would be for many years.  Indeed, the hype ignored the fact that for a few days prior and afterwards, the two would be almost as close in the sky as they were that night.  It would have been better to have said that Venus and Jupiter would be close together all week, changing a little each night relative to one another, and that Saturday would be the night they were closest.  That gets people looking up and noticing that planets move from night to night.  The very name comes from the Greek “asters planetai,” wandering stars.

One lady in particular was almost adamant about seeing the conjunction, as if she might never get another chance.  I didn’t tell her that the next night it would be almost as good.  I like to teach, so I explained that conjunctions often occur in 10 and 14 month intervals, although there is a better 3.3 year interval. I didn’t have the ephemeris at my fingertips, but this was the 28th conjunction between the two since the beginning of 1991.  They aren’t exactly rare; they are beautiful.  Her expression didn’t change.

She then told me how Mars was as “big as a basketball” when it rose, last year, closer than it had ever been for “thousands and thousands of years.”  That simply wasn’t true, but I quietly replied no, Mars was bright, but it was still far away and about as bright as Jupiter was that night.  I didn’t have at my fingertips the fact that in 1924 Mars was only about 12,000 miles further away than it was in 2003, which was when it was closest.  Perhaps, I thought, she was thinking of the reddish eclipsed Moon a year ago.

She wasn’t having it.  Somewhere, she heard it was Mars, and she wasn’t wrong.  Shortly thereafter, she left.

This “knowing” of something that is blatantly false has come to the fore this year.  American immigration peaked in 2007, not continually rising.  All nine categories of major crime have fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. We aren’t having a massive crime wave.  The Earth’s temperature is rising slowly but definitively, the oceans are slowly rising, and California is in its fifth year of drought.  I don’t like any of the last three.  I wish they weren’t occurring, but they are, and I need to face reality.  As a country, we aren’t.

I was disappointed on several fronts astronomically.  How in the world does somebody think that Mars can suddenly appear in our sky looking the size of the full Moon?  Then I remembered for years after the August 27, 2003 closest approach, I would get emails from people—smart people— saying that on August 27 that particular year, Mars would be closer to the Earth than it had been for thousands of years.  That was wrong.  So was the picture of the huge Moon blotting out the Sun, posted by somebody who said that is what an eclipse at the North Pole looks like. Nope, that’s wrong, too.  As was the photoshopped large Moon rising over Houston, where somebody commented, “I didn’t realize it was so big.”  The Moon appears smaller on the horizon that it does overhead, when it is 4,000 miles closer, because we aren’t looking across the Earth’s radius.  We can’t perceive a change in the lunar size of 1.7%, but it isn’t larger on the horizon.

While I’m at it, the idea of Supermoons, full Moons at perigee, or close to Earth, can’t be perceived with the eye.  Indeed, Project ASTRO personnel once laid out on a desk twelve phases of the Moon and asked us trainees to order them.  When I got done ordering them, I pointed out the change in the Moon’s size during the cycle.  The teachers had never noticed this simple and important finding before, and they were teaching astronomy for schools.  If they weren’t aware of the change in the Moon’s apparent size photographically during every cycle, it is unlikely that anybody will be aware with the eye.

I don’t like hearing  “rare, once in a lifetime sightings,” that next year will be followed by another similar rare, once in a lifetime sighting.  Venus-Jupiter conjunctions shouldn’t be hyped; viewing the night sky, as well as the day sky, should be.  People need to get out and look up, safely of course.  It beats looking down at the cellphone. Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are not rare, but you don’t see them often.  Look for them.  Mars becomes bright every other year, and that’s worth noting.  Venus and the crescent Moon pair often, and particularly close pairings are spectacular.  Indeed, the idea of educating people about astronomical events is important, given that many Americans do not know what a year means, how to find the North Star, three ways to distinguish a planet from a star (motion over several nights, shines with a steady light, usually brighter than surrounding stars), or how to see the Milky Way.  Hint: go outside in summer or winter, far from city lights, and look overhead.

I have been disappointed in my occasional attempts to get people interested in what is up in the night—or even day—sky.  Last May, I had my telescope out near Autzen Stadium to show people the uncommon transit of Mercury, where it crosses the Sun’s disk, viewed from Earth.  There was moderate foot traffic, but only 7 people came by and looked during the 4 hours I was there.  One woman spent time talking about her special breed of dogs but made no move to see something that happens 13 times a century.  The transit of Venus was even more rare, occurring twice 8 years apart, about every 120 years.  One of the people to whom I showed the latter commented that it wasn’t very spectacular.  No, it is not, but he got to see something nobody else alive today will see again. And he liked the buttons I was handing out, commemorating it.

Recently, I wrote, on short notice, an opinion piece for the local paper about the need to prepare for the large influx of people coming to Oregon for the total solar eclipse in 2017.  Perhaps there isn’t much interest in Oregon, but there is worldwide.  The article gave me a chance to talk about planning ahead, how to protect one’s eyes from blindness and one’s brain from falsehoods that will be spewed when the eclipse comes.  I hope the article will be helpful.  There were four comments about it in the newspaper; four people told me they read it.

I do what I can and hope that somewhere, sometime, it will make a difference.

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