Dance of the Planets
Watching the naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) rhythmically huddle and disperse is like watching an intricate dance. These planetary alignments are the result of our earthbound view of the naked-eye planets moving in their respective orbits around the Sun. Some are traveling faster than Earth; some are traveling slower. The resulting variety of configurations gives us a sense of the “clockwork of the universe” and reminds us that everything is in motion.
Solar system diagram created with Solar System Live
Be sure to look southwest after sunset on Monday, December 1, when Venus, Jupiter, and the crescent Moon will bunch up in the twilit sky. Venus will be the brighter of the two star-like objects you see, and Jupiter the fainter. The waxing (growing) crescent Moon will be about 15 percent illuminated.
While you're enjoying the alignment, look for earthshine on the Moon. Earthshine is sunlight reflecting off the surface of the Earth and illuminating the dark part of the Moon. Even though the bright crescent is the only part of the Moon’s face being directly illuminated by the Sun, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the rest of the Moon’s face is glowing faintly with reflected glory: earthshine.
Wishing on a “falling star” is one of the guilty pleasures of the stargazer. Even after you know that falling stars, aka "shooting stars," are meteors, you can still appreciate this charming holdover from early folkloric traditions.
A meteor is the streak of light we see in the sky when a bit of dust or space debris hits Earth’s atmosphere at high velocity. A meteor shower occurs when Earth encounters a stream of debris left behind by a comet’s close approach to the Sun. Sporadics are meteors not associated with a particular shower.
Meteor showers occur reliably around the same time every year, as Earth returns to the point in its orbit where the debris field lies. Whenever you like, you can find out what meteor showers are currently active by visiting this website and scrolling down to the Meteor Shower Calendar.
Meteor storm - 1889 engraving by Adolf Vollmy
If you’re lucky, you might someday see a meteor storm, a very intense meteor shower with a high frequency of meteors. One of my top ten stargazing experiences ever was viewing the 2001 Leonid meteor storm. The meteors came so fast and furious, it was a bit like watching a fireworks show. I was with a large group of fellow amateur astronomers at a dark-sky site, and the oohs and aahs from the crowd as particularly fine meteors blazed across the sky just added to the ambiance of the event. We all knew we were seeing something rather spectacular.
Cosmic Dust Bunnies
Interplanetary space is not empty. Our solar system contains a vast number of minute particles, some left over from the time of planet formation and some ejected from passing comets or asteroid collisions. Light from our Sun illuminates the myriad particles lying in the solar system plane, and sometimes we see the reflected sunlight as a luminous pillar of light called the zodiacal light.
The zodiacal light (zoh-DYE-uh-kull) is a large, roughly triangular or cone-shaped glow in the night sky, extending upwards from either the eastern or western horizon. The base of the triangle or cone— the widest part of the glow— is at the horizon. The zodiacal light is typically seen in the spring above the western horizon after sunset and in autumn above the eastern horizon before sunrise.
If you're fortunate enough to view the zodiacal light when transparency (atmospheric clarity) is good and the sky is inky black, you may notice the light pillar has a yellowish cast. Our Sun is, after all, a yellow star, so it shines with a golden light.
Cone-shaped glow of zodiacal light above sunset glow
Image source: ESO
Image source: ESO
The zodiacal light is subtle and can be quite challenging for the beginner to spot. A dark site away from urban and suburban night lighting is critical for success, as is avoidance of a moonlit night.
Believe me, this phenomena is worth a little extra effort. It’s quite a rush when you spot it, especially when you then start thinking about what you’re looking at— vintage dust from when the solar system formed. The goofy image that always pops into my head is the Sun as a clean freak with a big flashlight, showing us what lurks under the furniture.
My personal pet name for our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is simply “the Way,” because it represents for me a way of being and a way of seeing. I learned an important lesson a number of years ago on a camping and observing trip in southern Arizona. I had spent the better part of a night looking through the eyepiece of my telescope, hunting various galaxies, globular clusters, and nebulas on an observing list and methodically ticking off those “faint fuzzies” as I found them. Straightening up from the eyepiece to stretch my back, I faced south and audibly gasped. The woods south of the clearing where I and my partner were observing were on fire!
To be continued…